SETI, Bicycles, Gravity, Placebos and Baghdad – WIF Scientific Mysteries

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Science Still

Hasn’t Solved

These Mysteries

The science community has granted us a wealth of knowledge that can never be overstated. Things that used to mystify our ancestors can now be understood and more appreciated. It’s shaped our view of the world, the universe, the animal kingdom, human psychology — literally everything you know has been helped along by science and the men and women who dedicate their lives to finding out the whos, whats, whens, whys, and hows of stuff. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

But with science having that intrinsic aspect of being ever-evolving, it’s never foolproof or absolute. Built right into the scientific method are allowances for screw-ups or just plain not knowing something. And you might be surprised that some very basic parts of life here on our planet totally baffle some of our best and brightest smarties. Here are some examples of mysteries that science has yet to crack.

10. Why do we sleep?

Now here is one you think we’d have nailed down by now. Almost every single person in the world sleeps daily (unless you’re a Rolling Stones guitarist). And the answer probably seems obvious to most of us: we sleep to rest our bodies after the day. We can hold off on food, water, even sex for days on end, but when it’s sleepytime, nature takes over and our bodies ask for the check.

Except it’s not as simple as just needing rest. Science has educated guesses which include all sorts of reasons for sleep, like making time for our brains to get things in order after a long day, to reinforce memories, or to replenish fuel lost while awake. But then you throw in examples of plants and other organisms that don’t have any brains at all like we do, yet still have “sleep” patterns similar to ours, and people who have gene mutations which let them function without much sleep at all, and we begin to see our very limited understanding of why we sleep.

9. How does gravity work?

Gravity, as we learn in school, is very simple… right? There are forces within our planet that pull things toward the center. So if you throw something in the air, it comes back down. Gravity keeps you on the ground. It’s also what keeps the planets orbiting around the sun. This is all very simple, and we’ve known it since we were able to learn information. So why does science have so much difficulty explaining it?

Basically, gravity is one of four forces in our universe, which also include electromagnetism, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Gravity is the weakest of the four, and while we seem to grasp the concept of gravity with earthly examples, when things get too small or too big, like black holes and atoms, that’s when science and Newton’s principles don’t really make sense. And a simple science experiment you’ve seen before, where a balloon rubbed on your shirt creates enough electromagnetism to negate gravity and lift your hair or a piece of paper, shows just how easily gravity can sometimes, well, disappear.

8. Why are most people right handed?

People seem to take notice when someone uses their left hand for something, as if it’s some kind of freak mutation that’s just manifested itself. And while it’s rare for someone to be a natural southpaw (about 10 percent of the world’s population), it’s not quite the same as running across someone who, say, has horns growing out of their head.

So why do people deviate from the norm, in terms of handedness? Is it a genetic mutation? The environment they’re brought up in? Is it hereditary? Science doesn’t really know, and it doesn’t even really have an empirically-established way to measure handedness. Science does lean toward genetics, but there are even problems with that, as some teachers in school force children to become right handed when learning to write, and there is some data as to cultural and societal factors influencing which hand becomes dominant. Weirdly enough, we’ve learned why people become right-handed, but not why right is the “right” way. If that makes sense.

7. Why does anesthesia work?

It’s the divine gas that makes people not have to be acutely aware of their leg being amputated, among other things. The introduction of anesthesia granted patients the ability to snooze through all sorts of medical procedures, and it’s been a godsend since the mid-1800s — not only for the patients, but for doctors who had to deal with squirrely, wide-awake amputee victims. What started as an inhaled ether on its inception has become a more refined chemical blend that renders the recipient unconscious.

But we don’t really know how it does that. Think about it. When you’re asleep, you’re unconscious, right? But you would sure feel a scalpel opening you up, wouldn’t you? So why is the anesthesia unconsciousness different? And it’s an even bigger mystery as to how the diverse chemicals in the anesthetic, ranging from steroids to inert gases, can work together to achieve such a deep unconscious level that takes you about as close to death’s door as is possible. It seems that under anesthesia, different parts of the brain are affected much like a coma patient’s brain would be. All in all, it’s a wonderful tool in medicine and we don’t really know why.

6. Why do cats purr?

“Awwww, it’s because he/she LOVES ME!,” you likely think to yourself, ignoring the fact that if that cat was a little bigger, it would probably try to rip your face off. But it’s not a stupid assumption — most people probably associate the low rumbly purr of the kitty-cat to a feeling of happiness or contentedness. Science as a whole shrugs and meekly mumbles, “I dunno.”

See, cats also have a tendency to purr when they’re scared or hungry. Purring probably isn’t a form of communication, as it’s too low and local to be really effective. Also, in the realm of just pure weirdness, science has discovered that purring has been linked to bone regeneration. So there are many theories we have for why kittens just sit there and gently hum their bodies, but most likely it’s just a way for them to soothe themselves. Kind of like how we laugh for several different reasons.

5. Why was there a mysterious hum in New Mexico?

New Mexico has had a weird history of everything from nuclear bomb testings to Walter White standing on a dirt road in his tighty-whities. But the residents of the northern town of Taos have their own strange tale to tell, and it’s in reference to a local phenomenon called the “Taos Hum.”

Since the early ’90s, people in the town have described some kind of tangible audio event. Some call it a whirring kind of noise, or a buzz, or a humming in the air around Taos. A professor of engineering at the University of New Mexico studied the sounds around Taos, and noticed that around 2 percent of the population was susceptible to the strange hum. That doesn’t mean that they picked up any unusual sounds while conducting their research. Quite the opposite. Their very sensitive audio recording equipment and vibration sensors picked up nothing out of the ordinary. The fact that the townsfolk heard differing kinds of sounds is also of less scientific value than if they had all heard one low, persistent hum. And that’s why science is more keen to dismiss the Taos Hum as being part of the onslaught of background noise humans live in these days, mixed with subjective hearing experiences from the people themselves. The residents of Taos, however, stand firm in their belief of a weirder explanation. It is New Mexico, after all.

4. The ancient Baghdad batteries

Now, hear us out here. What if we told you that researchers working in Iraq in the 1930s found what totally appeared to be some kind of crude battery that may have been used to produce electrical charges, and that it likely dated from around 200 BC? Of course, that would predate that kind of technology by a couple thousand years.

What archaeologists originally thought were some kind of clay storage pots turned out upon closer inspection to contain copper rods within them. This led the scientists to strongly believe the pots would have held some kind of substance that would react to the copper rods and produce electricity. But why? Theories range from using the charge to shock people as punishment (those were stricter days), to using that electricity to electroplate things with gold. Another school of thought is that they found a way to make electricity long before knowing what the heck it was good for, kind of like the Chinese with gunpowder. Our turbulent history with Iraq doesn’t help us figure much of anything out, either.

3. Why does the placebo effect work?

You’ve all heard the basics of the placebo effect: it’s a treatment that isn’t “real,” but the very act of a patient believing in its effectiveness creates its own beneficial properties. If you expect a pill or drug to do something, it’s likely to work in some way. It seems mean, but science uses placebos especially when testing a new medication’s effectiveness. Which, maddeningly, is skewed because sometimes these placebos work. But why?

Beats us! The point of a placebo is you don’t know you’re taking it. But that opens up a whole host of problems because placebos can often work even when you know you’re taking one. That clearly goes against its entire purpose. In 2009, researchers testing treatments for irritable bowel syndrome found many subjects who knowingly took placebos got better at higher rates than those who received no treatment at all. That’s absolutely insane. And it seems that a person’s personality is tied to whether the placebo effect will work or not. But that’s just a guess so far. If that’s not enough stuff that science doesn’t get, there’s also potentially an inverse nocebo effect, where if you don’t believe a treatment will work, your symptoms will get worse. Our brains are weird, man.

2. Why are we getting repeating radio bursts from space?

Cue the History Channel “alien guy,” because this is clearly some extraterrestrial stuff, right? Slow down there, Captain SETI. Let’s lay out the basics first. A fast repeating signal burst from space, called FRB 121102, was first discovered in 2012. While we’ve come across some of these before, this one has repeated itself, though sporadically.

The bursts usually last about a millisecond, and we don’t yet know where they originate from. We know it’s from a galaxy 3 billion light-years away that was recently discovered, but that’s about all. The radio bursts, though short, are massive, containing as much energy as the sun produces in a day. The fact that it’s persistent and repeating makes scientists think the location could be near a black hole or a nebula. And the source itself has earned science’s best guess of a pulsar or neutron star. But that doesn’t mean the fantastical minds of scientists are ruling out extraterrestrial origins. What fun would it be to ruin those hopes?

1. How bicycles really work

What?? If science is really going to tell us they can’t figure out how a two-wheeled vehicle works, are we supposed to trust them about anything? And yet, the humble bicycle contains so much scientific mystery within.

Much of the mystery concerns the bicycle without a rider perched on it. If a bike is going fast enough, it’s going to want to balance itself so it doesn’t fall over. It even does with when someone is riding it, to a degree. That self-stability and why it occurs has eluded scientists since the 19th century. The commonly-held idea that the gyroscopic effect of the rotating front wheel keeps the bike stable has fallen apart under recent analysis. An alternate theory likens the wheel on a bicycle to the wheels on a shopping cart, in that they align themselves automatically in the direction being traveled. That also fell apart. It seems science does have a point where they just give up and break for lunch.


SETI, Bicycles, Gravity, Placebos and Baghdad –

WIF Scientific Mysteries

Turtle Shells, Knuckles, Aliens and Appendix – WIF Science

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Questions Science Took

Forever to Answer

Questions WO Answers-001

The scientific method is all about getting to the bottom of questions large and small. It will be an invaluable tool for as long as there are questions to be answered. That’ll be until such time as science gives us a quantum computer that can compute the Universe. And then, said computer will still be an end result of the scientific method.

That said, it can sometimes work very… very… slowly. From the mundane to the fantastic to the extraterrestrial, here are 10 questions scientists banged their heads against for a very long time until the answers came.

10. What Causes Volcanic Lightning

volcanic lightning

A long-observed quality of violent volcanic eruptions are the crackling electrical displays associated with their ash plumes. While awesome to look at (from a safe distance), the phenomenon has long puzzled scientists in that it is obviously a separate one from regular, earth-bound lightning, and had no apparent cause.

 The answer, according to University of Munich researchers, lies within the ash itself. Specifically, tiny particles of rising ash that are electrified by magma. Particularly in the violent lower regions of the ash plume, where the turbulence generates complex charge distributions, this eventually leads to an electrostatic discharge. One which often propagates upwards, instead of downwards like regular lightning, due to the rising ash.

The answer to this question isn’t just useful for satisfying curiosity. The study also unexpectedly showed a correlation between the frequency of the lightning and the total volume of ash that the eruption will generate. Observing the phenomenon could therefore lead to accurate predictions about the sizes of each ash cloud. That, in turn, could result in better evacuation planning and air quality alerts.

9. Why Turtles Have Shells

turtle

The question of what caused turtles to evolve their shells would seem to have a simple answer. Turtles are notoriously slow, making them easy pickings for predators. A hard protective shell is an obvious evolutionary advantage. But examination of the turtle’s evolutionary process shows this to be false. Turtles are slow because of their wide, flat ribs, a feature distinct from almost all other animals, and which is necessary to support their shells. That is, turtles are slow because they have shells. So why have them at all?

Well, for protection, yes. But not from predators; from the harsh South African desert environment in which turtles evolved. Specifically, the turtle’s shell began as a means of digging underground, creating caves to escape the heat and aridity.

 Though long suspected, final confirmation of this theory did not arrive until an 8-year old South African boy stumbled upon a well-preserved, only partially shelled “proto-turtle” fossil while working the family farm. Fortunately, the family took the specimen to a local museum and enabled researchers to put this burning, slowly ambulating question to rest.

8. Why Jet Lag is Directional

jet lag

Frequent fliers know that when traveling from West to East, the effects of jet lag are much more pronounced than when traveling from East to West. This was long suspected to be all in the head of the traveler, or perhaps due to public consensus that this is just how jet lag works. But it was recently found that the effect is real, and there is a reason for it. It has to do with your Circadian rhythm, and its role in how long it takes your brain to “sync up” after a time zone shift.

Simply put, the body’s natural clock is generally set to be slightly longer than 24 hours, and it varies for each individual.  This being the case, the body is naturally geared toward adjusting to longer days rather than shorter. Certain cells in the brain control this rhythm, but these cells are themselves controlled by variations in sunlight.

When days are lengthened and sunlight is prolonged, there is still a “signal” (sunlight) feeding information to these cells. But they become confused in the absence of sunlight, or when days are shortened. This throws off the body’s internal clock. Since traveling from West to East has the effect of shortening the day, our internal rhythm is thrown more severely out of whack in this scenario – our natural inclination toward longer days being a contributing factor.

7. Why Knuckles Pop

knuckles

You may have heard that the popping sound when cracking your knuckles is the result of bubbles in the joint fluid, which collapse when the joint is moved a certain way. You may have even taken this as fact for a very long while. But it turns out that this whole time, that was pure speculation. In an experiment that we honestly can’t believe it took somebody so long to perform, University of Alberta Canada researcher Greg Kawchuk got somebody who is really, really adept at cracking his knuckles, stuck his hand in an MRI machine, and got to the bottom of the whole thing.

Rather, the subject came to him. Jerome Fryer is a “champion knuckle cracker” who also happens to be a chiropractor. He came to Kawchuk with his theory: the sound results from the sudden formation of a cavity inside the joint fluid. Not its collapse, but the actual formation of the cavity: “It’s a little bit like forming a vacuum… as the joint surfaces suddenly separate, there is no more fluid available to fill the increasing joint volume, so a cavity is created, and that event is what’s associated with the sound.”

You may have also heard that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis, which is almost certainly untrue. However, this new study could disprove that notion once and for all. It could also lead to better early treatment and diagnosing of joint problems.

6. The Function of the Appendix

appendix

For centuries, the appendix has been thought a vestigial organ. An evolutionary leftover, with no purpose other than occasionally to serve as a ticking time bomb which will kill us if not removed immediately. While it’s true that we can function perfectly normally without one, research has uncovered the hidden purpose of the appendix. It’s a sort of reserve barracks for the additional platoons of good bacteria needed to fight particularly nasty infections.

The discovery was made by examining the appendices of koala bears, which have comparatively long and large ones. They’re needed to aid in the processing of their diets, which consist of practically nothing but Eucalyptus leaves. It’s speculated that if koala’s diets were to change, over thousands of years, their appendices would shrink as ours have.

Duke University Medical Center professor Bill Parker, who participated in the research, stressed that this by no means implies that we should now try to hang on to our appendix at any cost. “It’s very important for people to understand that if their appendix gets inflamed, just because it has a function it does not mean they should try to keep it in,” he says.

5. Whether Memories Can Be Inherited

memory

Epigenetics is the study of how genes can be altered by environment, writing changes into our DNA which can then be passed on. For example, it has been shown that things like dietary habits or exposure to environmental toxins can result in having offspring which inherit certain food or chemical sensitivities. What was not known until recently was whether experiences can have the same effect. For instance, if a traumatic childhood on the part of a parent can result in changes to a child’s DNA.

A Tel Aviv University research team recently not only confirmed that this is the case, but revealed the exact mechanism that serves as an on/off switch for inherited environmental influences. It was previously known that small RNA molecules are somehow key in facilitating inherited DNA modifications. In measuring epigenetic responses in worms, researchers were able to isolate an enzyme that essentially tells the small RNA molecules to keep replicating. This determines over how many generations the epigenetic response persists.

It was further discovered that by manipulating this “switch” that epigenetic responses – like passing down a fear response learned by a prior generation – could be prolonged or terminated at the researchers’ will. The implication, of course, is that a similar switch in humans could be manipulated to proactively help those predisposed not only to physical conditions, but emotional and mental conditions as well.

4. Why Subatomic Particles Bind

subatomic

In particle physics, the quark is the tiniest, most elementary of all particles. If quarks are composed of anything smaller, we don’t know about it yet. They in turn make up protons and neutrons, which are bound together by… force. Up until recently, nobody was sure exactly what that force was. But we now have a pretty good idea. It’s yet another kind of particle.

 Scientifically known as meson f0(1710) but referred to as the gluon (yes, really), the particle acts as the glue which binds all other particles together. They are similar to photons (particles of light) in that they have no mass of their own. Yet, similar to how photons are responsible for electromagnetic force, gluons are responsible for strong nuclear force. The key difference: photons aren’t subject to their own force, while gluons are. Meaning that they’re able to bind together.

Existing for too short a period of time to be examined directly, gluons were discovered and can be examined by their detected rate of decay. More specifically, groups of bound gluons – called “glueballs”- are basically what’s holding the entire Universe together.

3. The Nature of Gravity

gravity

Albert Einstein’s Theories of Special and General Relativity have held up better than perhaps any other incredibly significant scientific theories. Their applications have led to the development of semiconductors, to name just one thing. Without those, you wouldn’t be reading this. But even the soundest theories, backed by reams of research and decades of practical applications, can have their holes. For relativity, that hole was gravity.

 Einstein’s theories assumed that, like light, sound, and practically everything else, gravity is expressed as a wave or frequency. This was, in fact, the last major prediction of relativity to be fulfilled. This has generally been held to be true for decades, but wasn’t confirmed until recently, and in rather spectacular fashion.

Using extremely sensitive instruments, scientists recorded the distant sound of two black holes colliding. The faint, rising tone represented the energy of the collision – 50 times the power output of all stars in the Universe combined – conveyed by gravitational waves to the measuring device. This tone may soon become a hallowed recording in the annals of science, as it all but completes Einstein’s vision. Using this new discovery, astronomers will be able to construct instruments that can “hear” deeper into space than ever before. That black hole collision that was measured? It was two billion light years away.

2. Why There Are Men

men

Humans have evolved to become very efficient organisms. However, our method of reproduction does not seem to suit us in that regard, strictly speaking. While we may find it enjoyable, sexual reproduction pales in comparison to asexual reproduction, exhibited by many animal species, in terms of efficiency. If humans have followed their most advantageous evolutionary course, there should be only one human sex (female) which would reproduce all on its own. So, why are there men?

Researchers may have found the answer in a study involving flour beetles. The study had two parts. In one, 90 males and 10 females were put together and observed. In the other, just one male and one female were paired up. After 50 generations (!), it was found that sexual selection seemed to play a significant role in producing healthy offspring.

This is likely because having a choice of mate can act as a means to filter out harmful genetic mutations. That’s according to lead researcher Matt Gage of the University of East Anglia. This suggests that not only would asexual reproduction not have been more efficient for us, but that if we did not reproduce sexually we probably would have gone extinct.

 1. Whether There Have Ever Been Aliens

alien

Answering the question of whether we’re alone in the Universe is one of the holy grails of science. Almost as compelling is the question of whether extraterrestrial life hasever existed. We have no frame of reference as to how long a civilization might potentially last. Or, where on the cosmic timeline one might have existed. And we haven’t found any physical evidence. However, extremely strong circumstantial evidence has recently become available which all but answers the question definitively.

And, the answer is yes. In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake identified seven factors (expressed in the form of an equation) which identify the odds of contact with an alien civilization. They include the number of stars born each year, percentage of planets upon which life evolves, and so on, with the final factor being the average lifetime of a civilization. Most of these factors being unknown variables, there was no way to effectively use the equation to arrive at any kind of solution.

 However, in the intervening years, knowledge of the number of planets has increased exponentially. That’s allowed figures to be plugged into Drake’s equation and shed some light on the issue. In a recent paper, astronomers Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan ran the numbers to arrive at a startling conclusion: “unless the probability for evolving a civilization on a habitable-zone planet is less than one in ten billion trillion, then we are not the first.” Frank also stated, in a New York Times op-ed, “In previous discussions of the Drake equation, a probability for civilizations to form of one in 10 billion per planet was considered highly pessimistic. According to our finding, even if you grant that level of pessimism, a trillion civilizations still would have appeared over the course of cosmic history.”

Volcanic Lightning, Knuckles,

Aliens and Appendixes

Questions WO Answers-001

– WIF Science