Professors’ Take: Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is yet another ‘lost at sea’ tale

Charles A. Garris, Jr. is a professor of mechanical & aerospace engineering.

“Flight ‘ended’ in Indian Ocean.” That was Tuesday’s Washington Post headline. The Malaysian Prime Minister announced that Malaysia Flight 370, which has been missing for 16 days, went down in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean and that there is no hope for any survivors among the 239 persons on board the plane.

It’s no wonder that the news has been covering it. The thirst for closure on everyone’s part is excruciating and unbearable, and it is rooted in natural human behavior.

As a child, I recall my grandmother telling me the story about the terrible loss of her two uncles who were ship’s carpenters in the 1890s. They sailed on a voyage to deliver a cargo that never arrived, and they never returned home. They were “lost at sea.” My grandmother recounted the family’s grief, but there was no closure. There always was the hope that the two brothers would return some day, but they never did.

Far before then, in Homer’s Odyssey, which takes place at the time of the Trojan War, 1300 BC, Odysseus leaves home with the Greek army to fight in Troy. Not returning after many years, he was assumed to be dead. His wife, Penelope, was faced with suitors who sought to marry her thinking that her husband was dead. Penelope refused the suitors believing that Odysseus would some day return. Indeed, he did – after 20 years.

In the age of Homer until modern times, thousands of vessels attempted to cross the seas, and never returned for reasons that remain a mystery. Amelia Earhart’s flight over the Pacific is but one example. Today, theories still abound on what happened to Amelia Earhart in her flight over the Pacific.

Throughout the ages, people have sought explanations for the vessels lost and have devised ingenious models of a flat earth with monsters lurking at the periphery, eager to gobble up a wayward vessel.

However, in our time of advanced technology, we should hold a new hope that the loved ones on Malaysia Flight 370 might return home, just as Odysseus did.

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