Why does the mystery of Malaysia MH370 hold such fascination for us?

Unsolved mysteries have an ability to fascinate us on a deep, visceral level

A Boeing 777 Malaysian Airlines, similar to the aircraft that went missing on March 8th. Photograph: Reuters

A Boeing 777 Malaysian Airlines, similar to the aircraft that went missing on March 8th. Photograph: Reuters


On a December afternoon in 1872, midway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal, one Captain Morehouse spied a Canadian brigantine, a small, two-masted vessel, drifting in the Atlantic. Morehouse boarded and found that the ship was in perfectly seaworthy condition – though the sails were slightly torn – and its cargo of 1701 barrels of alcohol was intact.

It was unremarkable except for one thing – the ship was empty, the lifeboat gone, with all the signs indicating the crew had deserted in a hurry. The captain, his wife and daughter, and the crew of seven were never seen again.

The vessel was the Mary Celeste , and it’s a sign of our abiding fascination with such mysteries that the ship’s name is still one of the most famous in maritime history.

A week after its sudden disappearance off the coast of Vietnam, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is now holding us in a similar thrall, and the utter lack of answers or even reliable clues is only exacerbating the anguish of families of the passengers and crew. The horror of sudden loss is only amplified in such a void.

In the absence of any evidence, the theories as to the flight’s fate are multiplying, while the botched handling of the investigation by Malaysian authorities has only aggravated the sense of confusion.

Two of the best writers on aviation issues, pilot Patrick Smith and Atlantic writer James Fallows, have been particularly illuminating about the incident this week.

Both point out that flying is now so safe that only exceptionally rare confluences of circumstances are likely to bring down a flight.

“Air safety experts refer to this as the ‘Swiss cheese’ factor: the odd cases in which the holes in different slices of Swiss cheese happen to line up exactly, letting the improbable occur,” writes Fallows.

Increasing mystery
On his Ask the Pilot website, Smith elaborates on this point. “In some ways, the weirdness of this story speaks to how well we have engineered away what once were the most common causes of crashes. Those that still occur tend to be more mysterious and strange than in decades past.”

According to figures compiled by the Aviation Safety Network, some 83 aircraft have been declared “missing” since 1948, with no debris or remains ever found, though the majority are from the 1950s and 1960s. Today, standards have improved to the point where last year was the safest in commercial aviation history.

Despite the awareness of aviation safety, the incident also taps into that perennial sense that there is something unnatural about flying at 30,000ft in a metal tube with wings – we all tend to briefly consider our mortality at every tremble of turbulence above the clouds.

But in the age of GPS satellites and constant global communication, the assumption is that the possibility of this sort of mystery occurring is negligible.

However, as the search has gone on, the question has grown from one of “What happened to MH370?” to “How do we not know what happened to MH370?”, and the distinction between those two questions hints at why we find the flight’s disappearance at once so fascinating and so deeply troubling. The first speaks to the conundrum over the flight’s fate, while the second reveals a more unsettling sort of enigma.

It is part of our very nature to crave explanations, and incidents such as this are a rebuke to our sense of mastery of the world. If the enduring fame of the Mary Celeste tells us anything, it is that unsolved mysteries fascinate us on a deep, visceral level because they violently assert the limits of our knowledge and control.

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