A Cautionary Tale (and a Cold One)

In 1913, the American Museum of Natural History sent a scientific expedition to the Arctic to discover, map, and explore “Crocker Land,” dubbed “the Arctic Atlantis.” This was because Robert Peary, the great explorer who would be the first to reach the North Pole (if Frederick Cook’s claim is disallowed), said he saw it, from a distance, with binoculars. Peary named it Crocker Land and estimated it lay some 120 miles distant from where he stood on the mainland.

Speculation ran wild. Peary himself, inspired by Eskimo legends, thought Crocker Land might be an ice-free paradise. The folks at the museum thought he might be right.

And so for four years the expedition, led by Donald MacMillan, flailed around the ice and snow looking for this happy, sun-kissed hunting ground.

What they found was endless hardship and privation: because there was no such place as Crocker Land. Peary had seen a mirage. MacMillan’s second-in-command, Fitzhugh Green, went mad and murdered his Eskimo guide. What was left of the expedition returned to New York in 1917. It is recorded that the Museum Director, Henry Fairfield Osborne, was furious at the cost of the expedition–to say nothing of its total failure, and even less of the looming scandal of a murder.

All this on account of a mirage.

[My source: Dinosaurs in the Attic: an Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History by Douglas Preston, St. Martin’s Press, New York: 1986]

Well, it wasn’t the first time Big Science chased a mirage, and it won’t be the last. And Heaven help anyone caught standing in the way.


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