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Poles Apart

Poles Apart

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Donovan Webster spent 18 months, on and off, investigating the growing problem of dinosaur prospecting—private citizens digging up dinosaur bones and other fossils to sell them—which has paleontologists in an uproar and the legal system in a tizzy ("The Dino Wars,"). It would seem obvious that if a fossil "is significant, it should be in a museum," Webster says, but he discovered that laws about digging vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and "are so carved up depending on where you find the thing"—on public or private land—"even the paleontologists can't agree on what it is we need to protect the significant fossils." The case Webster tracks, which involves a rare juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton first thought to be on private land but later determined to be on county property, exemplifies the complexities. "At some point we are going to have to have a national dialogue about these questions," says Webster. "These fossils belong to all of us. Somebody's making private money off them. What should we do about it?"

"History isn't always portrayed accurately," says Bruce Henderson, author of True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole, from which he adapted "Cook vs. Peary". "History books and encyclopedias have long said that Robert Peary discovered the North Pole, in 1909. Guess what? The claim of Frederick Cook to have gotten there a year before Peary is every bit as strong, and in some ways stronger, because Cook was the first to come out with original descriptions of the pole, before Peary would release his own descriptions. And this was at a time when people didn't know if there was land up there or even a lost civilization. Cook described the pole in a way that was verified by all the people who came after him. That's an amazing thing. So just because it's reported to be history doesn't make it right." For his book on the pair, Henderson spent nearly two years doing research at the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, reading the explorers' letters and journals as well as a host of related documents. "There's going to be a lot of stories about the centennial of the discovery of the North Pole by Robert Peary. I'd love for readers to know, wait a minute, maybe another guy got there first. Maybe this is actually the 101st anniversary of the discovery. How is it that the forces around Peary completely overwhelmed Dr. Cook? How is it that Cook has basically dropped out of our history books?"

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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