UNTIL THE LAST YEAR, when the Central African Republic’s civil war became a humanitarian crisis too dire to ignore, most Americans thought little about the country at all. It has a low global profile in part because it is exceedingly poor, with four out of five people living on less than $2 a day. It has some natural resources, but because it is landlocked by other troubled countries—Chad, Sudan, Congo, and Cameroon—even if a lull in the war allowed it to extract those from the ground, it would still face formidable problems in exporting them.
But for one group, the Central African Republic is anything but ignorable, and in fact is home to an enduring scientific mystery. Geophysicists who map the earth’s magnetic fields have identified a disturbance in the earth’s natural magnetic fields within the Republic. They still have few clues about what causes it, but at least some think it could be key to understanding one of the most dramatic events in the history of the planet.