The Grey Chronicles

2009.April.13

13 Baffling Scientific Mysteries



13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

Based on an article that originally appeared in the March 19, 2005, issue of New Scientist, Michael Brooks (2008) writes:

In science, being stuck can be a sign that you are about to make a great leap forward. The things that don’t make sense are, in some ways, the only things that matter.

Brooks described 13 baffling scientific mysteries of our time that don’t make sense:

1. THE MISSING UNIVERSE We can only account for 4 percent of the cosmos

“We are privileged enough to be living in the golden age of cosmology; we know an enormous amount about how the cosmos came to be, how it evolved into its current state, and yet we don’t actually know what most of it is. Almost all of the universe is missing: 96 percent, to put a number on it. . . the substance of those invisible guiding hands—known to scientists as dark matter—is nearly a quarter of the total amount of mass in the cosmos. . . And then there is the dark energy, the scientists’ name for the ghostly essence that is making the fabric of the universe expand ever faster, creating ever more empty space between galaxies. . . No one knows where this energy comes from, what it is, whether it will keep on accelerating the universe’s expansion forever, or whether it will run out of steam eventually.”

2. THE PIONEER ANOMALY. Two spacecraft are flouting the laws of physics

“The idea that the Pioneer probes threaten the known laws of physics is almost universally derided—even by the people trying to make sense of the anomaly. . . The first Pioneer probe was launched from Cape Canaveral on March 2, 1972. Pioneer 11 went up on April 5, 1973. . . In 1980, the trajectory readings stopped making sense: both spacecraft, it seemed, were being pulled toward the Sun. . . After three decades of trying to find an answer, the researchers investigating the Pioneer anomaly have nothing.”

3. VARYING CONSTANTS Destabilizing our view of the universe

“The lift you would need to generate for takeoff involves the mass of the Earth, your mass, your distance from the center of the Earth, and a number known as Big G, the gravitational constant. It is probably the most familiar of the fundamental constants of physics, the collection of numbers that describe just how strong the forces of nature are.”

4. COLD FUSION Nuclear energy without the drama

“Nuclear fusion is real enough. Squash two atoms close enough together, and their nuclei join, or fuse, creating one heavy atom and releasing energy. . . Pons and Fleischmann implied that all the decades of effort and the millions of dollars of research money were perhaps a waste of time, that you could create fusion reactions and release nuclear energy at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressure—and in nothing more complex than a laboratory beaker.”

5. LIFE Are you more than just a bag of chemicals?

“How would you define life? Is it when a system reproduces itself? If that is the case, plenty of computer programs could be called alive, while plenty of people—sterile men and women, for example, or nuns—could not. Things that are alive consume fuel, move around, and excrete waste products, but so do automobiles, and no one would call them alive. . . So maybe life seems so strangely hard to make because we have no idea how it started; maybe Earth’s conditions did not generate life but merely provided a good home.”

6. VIKING NASA scientists found evidence for life on Mars. Then they changed their minds.

“When the results first came in from the Viking mission that carried his experiment, Carl Sagan, the face of cosmic exploration, congratulated Gilbert Levin who made the first discovery of life beyond Earth. A couple of days later, to Levin’s enormous disappointment, Sagan took his congratulations back; it had all been a mistake. Thirty years on, they are still the subject of debate in the scientific literature.”

7. THE WOW! SIGNAL Has ET already been in touch?

“Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, two physicists from Cornell University in New York, wrote in Nature that an alien signal would come in at 1420 Mhz premised that any beings capable of communication would already have worked out and noted that hydrogen emits radiation at 1420 Mhz. On August 15, 1977 that signal arrived in Delaware, Ohio. 6EQUJ5 came up early in the printout—Jerry Ehman marked it with that Wow! it was a narrowband signal at 1420 Mhz.”

8. A GIANT VIRUS It’s a freak that could rewrite the story of life

Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, grouped organisms by their shared physical characteristics. So we have genus and species. Carl Woese looked beyond physical characteristics, and proposed that the tree of life is composed of eukaryotes; the simpler prokaryotes; and archaea. . . The Marseille researchers found Mimivirus is the proud owner of a grand total of 1,262 genes compared with 100 or so for the typical virus, the largest example of a nucleocytoplasmic large DNA virus (NCLDV) and the Marseille giant virus is the largest of them all. Mimivirus occupies an entirely new branch, right down near the base of the tree. Its mutations suggest it evolved before the eukaryotes and their complex, structured cells.”

9. DEATH Evolution’s problem with self-destruction

“Senescence, the deterioration with time that leads ultimately to death, is meant to be universal in the animal kingdom. . . Our understanding of the processes of aging is still rudimentary, and no one is sure exactly what the trade-offs between longevity and ill health might be.” . . In 2004, in the Journal of Gerontology, Leonard Hayflick stated that “aging is simply the result of accumulated defects.” On the other hand, “aging is controlled by a genetic switch” that can only have arisen through some reproductive trade-off.

10. SEX There are better ways to reproduce

“The central enigma is simply that asexual reproduction, where an organism produces a copy of itself, is a much more efficient way to pass your genes down to the next generation. . .The puzzle is, why hasn’t asexual reproduction taken over? Research has shown that if populations aren’t too large or small . . . sexual reproduction, more than asexual reproduction, can use genetic drift to enhance survival. But that’s hardly a conclusive argument.”

11. FREE WILL Your decisions are not your own

“Neuroscientists have shown time and again that when it comes to intention and control, we are astonishingly self-deceiving. We might be convinced that we have free will, but we should treat any and all such inner convictions with a large dose of skepticism. . . Free will may be the one scientific anomaly that humans would be wise to ignore.”

12. THE PLACEBO EFFECT Who’s being deceived?

“A placebo is a medical procedure that has no medicine in it. . . While the ethical issues surrounding placebo have long been debated to no conclusion, the scientific basis of the effect is a relatively new topic for research.”

13. HOMEOPATHY It’s patently absurd, so why won’t it go away?

“Homeopathy, invented in the late 1700s, is now more popular than ever and now forms an integral part of the national health-care systems of Germany, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mexico. . . Given more than two centuries, science has failed to show that homeopathy is bunkum.”

There are claims that there is nothing man needs to explore, that everything have already been explored. Some say that science, particularly physics, have already discovered everything that is to be discovered. Yet, certainly, the 13 things above as presented by Brooks are some of the things that need some answers. He concludes:

“Whatever the revolutions to come, one thing is sure. Every advance will most likely tell us as much about ourselves as it will about the universe we inhabit. We are collections of chemicals made in the cataclysmic explosions of stars; we are stardust, or nuclear waste, depending on your perspective. But, audaciously, we consider ourselves so much more than the sum of those parts; we declare ourselves to be alive, even though we don’t know what that means. We want to, we expect to, discover other living things in this vast universe, while we also struggle to make sense of the chemistry of a few palladium atoms held in a small tank of water. We can think ourselves out of pain and yet can also prove we do not control even our own muscles. We launch probes into space, but we are unable to explain our most primitive urges and desires. We consider ourselves the pinnacle of evolution while aware we know very little of its true story.”


Notes:

Brooks, Michael (2008). 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of our Time. New York: Doubleday, 2008. p. X. back to text

eukaryotes, the advanced organisms like animals and plants whose large and complex cells contained a nucleus that held inheritable information (Brooks, 2008; p. 115). back to text

prokaryotes, such as bacteria, which have cells without a nucleus (Brooks, 2008; p. 115). back to text

archaea, a group of microbes genetically distinct from bacteria; in fact they were genetically more like the eukaryotes living in inhospitable habitat; characterized by living in high-temperature environments or emitting methane, might look similar to the bacteria; thrives in saline water. Others live in the intestines of cows, in hot sulphurous springs, in deep ocean trenches feeding off the black smoker vents, in petroleum reserves, etc. (Brooks, 2008; p. 115). back to text

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