Judge Crater. Amelia Earhart. Jimmy Hoffa. DB Cooper. It seems impossible to just vanish into thin air, but there is a surprisingly long list of people who have done it, or had it done to them, from Spartacus, presumably killed in battle in 71 B.C. but never found, to the never-ending rogues’ gallery that stares sullenly out at the world from the FBI’s most-wanted list.
One of the most enigmatic disappearances in modern times was that of Michael Rockefeller, scion of that famous wealthy American family. Rockefeller, a bright young man determined to machete his own trail, chose to do it in an extremely remote place on the other side of the planet. The treasures he found and shipped back, towering ceremonial totem poles carved by the Asmat tribe to commemorate their fallen family members and call for vengeance for their deaths, still stand in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The romance of the rainforest, the contrast between the power and fortune of his family and the tribal land he was exploring, the rumors of cannibalism, the fact that he left behind a grieving twin sister—all of these elements combined to make his unexplained disappearance one of the most compelling mysteries of my lifetime. So when I found out that Carl Hoffman, an intrepid journalist who has written for Smithsonian in the past, was planning to travel to New Guinea and retrace Rockefeller’s last steps, I told him we wanted the story. I contributed when Hoffman posted his mission on Kickstarter, a very modern way to fund an attempt to solve a cold case from half a century ago, and in this issue we’re publishing the result, an advance excerpt from his upcoming book, Savage Harvest. In it, Hoffman comes as close to explaining what happened to Michael Rockefeller as anyone ever has or, given the circumstances and passage of time, ever will.
Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find fragments from the lost world of the Vikings, the (possibly) disappearing world of Arctic reindeer, and the rediscovered words and worlds of astronomer Carl Sagan.
“We’re going to explore the cosmos in a ship of the imagination,” Sagan announced grandly in the first episode of his 1980 series, “Cosmos.” “Drawn by the music of cosmic harmonies, it can take us anywhere in space and time. Perfect as a snowflake, organicas a dandelion seed, it will carry us to worlds of dreams and worlds of facts. Come with me.”
Millions did. Sagan instantly became America’s leading public scientist, a peripatetic intellect whose spirit of curiosity and optimism went viral. After all, who could not thrill to the idea that, as he put it, “we are made of star stuff”?
On the eve of a reboot of the “Cosmos” show, science writer Joel Achenbach takes a deep dive into Sagan’s fascinating legacy and finds that it is still Carl Sagan’s cosmos, we’re just living in it.
Editor in Chief