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10 Questions Still Baffling Scientists

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Science has done a terrific job of answering some of the world’s most difficult questions, but certain mysteries still elude researchers. How does gravity work? Can your pet fish really predict an earthquake? Why do we yawn so much? Here’s what we don’t know and how close we are to figuring it out.

1. Why Do We Yawn?

Theories about why we yawn are as common as grumpy toddlers at nap time, but two explanations seem plausible after experimental tests. One is that yawns help cool the brain and optimize its performance. Psychologists at the State University of New York at Albany say it explains why we yawn when we’re drowsy: Like the fan in a computer, the yawn kicks in when our performance starts lagging.

But if yawns are our brains’ way of kick-starting their efficiency, why is yawning contagious? The brain-cooling camp suggests that it’s a way to maintain group vigilance and safety. When a member of a pack yawns, signaling that he is not functioning at his best, the whole group may need to yawn for a collective cognitive boost.

That’s not the only theory floating around, though. Another explanation contends that contagious yawning builds and maintains empathy between yawners. A sympathetic yawn signals an appreciation and understanding of someone else’s condition and subconsciously says, “Me too, buddy.” So which story is the accurate one? Scientists aren’t ready to declare a winner yet—they need a little time to sleep on it.

2. Why Do People Spontaneously Combust?

Here’s what we know: Humans really do spontaneously combust. One of the first people recorded to have gone up in smoke is a poor Italian knight who burst into flames after drinking strong wine in the mid–17th century. The cause of the mysterious fireworks befuddles scientists, but they’re certain that each instance is less spontaneous than it seems. Over centuries, 120 cases of spontaneous human combustion have been reported, but because most of the cases involve smokers, a common hypothesis is that an outside flame is involved. The theory is that a cigarette scorches the skin and breaks it deep enough to force body fat to seep rapidly from the wound into burning clothing; together they act like candle wax and a wick.

It’s far more probable than the competing idea—that methane gases build up in the intestines and are sparked from inside the body by a mix of enzymes. But there’s a problem with testing both theories: Researchers can’t just walk around setting people on fire. They may have found a substitute that will answer the question, though. Pig tissue combusts in a way that’s consistent with the “wick effect,” and samples are far easier to obtain. Who knew bacon would help solve the mystery of one of Spinal Tap’s drummers?

3. Why Do Placebos Work?

When a new drug enters clinical trials, researchers need a control group against which to compare its effects. Members of this group are given what they’re told is the drug but is actually a pill containing no active ingredients, a placebo. Frequently, though, the control subjects feel the drug’s effects. Or at least they say they do. What actually happens to placebo poppers is still unsettled. Some studies have found objectively measured effects that are in line with a real drug’s results. Others have found that the benefits are only subjective; patients said they felt better after taking the placebo, regardless of their actual improvement. This mixed bag of evidence could support any number of explanations. There could be an actual physiological response, Pavlovian conditioning (a patient expects to feel better after medicating), positive feelings from patient-doctor interactions, an unconscious desire to “do well” in a clinical trial, or even a natural improvement in symptoms.

Whatever the cause, pharmaceutical companies are keen to figure out the placebo effect given its potential to throw clinical trials into disarray. Real drugs often can’t compete against the effects of fakers, and about half get scrapped in late-stage trials. For the researchers who’ve spent nearly 10 years trying to bring their drugs to market, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

4. What Was Life’s Last Universal Common Ancestor?

A whale and a bacterium or an octopus and an orchid don’t seem to have much in common, but deep down they’re all the same. Research reveals that most of life’s tiniest components, like proteins and nucleic acids, are nearly universal. The genetic code is written in the same way across all organisms. A small core of genome sequences is also similar across major branches of life’s family tree. All this suggests that every living thing made of cells can trace its lineage back to one source, a universal common ancestor.

In theory, this idea makes a lot of sense. Getting this ancestor to show up for a paternity test is tougher. Scientists estimate that the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) split into microbes and later eukaryotes (animals, plants, and the like) around 2.9 billion years ago. The fossil record from that era is scant, and by now, the genes that have traveled down the family tree have been lost, swapped, or shuffled around.

But some features of proteins and nucleic acids encoded by these genes—such as their three-dimensional structure—have been preserved throughout time. A survey of these molecular traits offers a glimpse at what the last universal common ancestor might have looked like. Researchers have found that tiny organelles (specialized subparts of cells) as well as their associated enzymes are shared by all major branches of life, meaning that they must have been present in the last universal common ancestor. This and other evidence suggests that the LUCA was as complex as a modern cell—which doesn’t make our forebear all that visually impressive. But on the plus side, until scientists get to the bottom of this question, we can all save money on Father’s Day cards for the granddaddy of all life on Earth.

5. How Does Memory Work?

For a long time, neuroscientists thought a memory was stored in a scattered group of neurons in either the hippocampus or in the neocortex. Last year, researchers at MIT proved that theory for the first time by causing mice to remember or forget an event by activating or deactivating the associated neurons.

It’s an essential piece to the puzzle, but to recall a memory on its own, the brain has to activate the correct assortment of neurons. And how exactly the brain pulls off that trick isn’t fully understood. Studies on rodents and brain imaging in people suggests that some of the same neurons that the original experience affected are involved. In other words, remembering something may not just be a matter of grabbing it from its storage space but re-forming the memory each time it’s pulled out.

6. Can Animals Really Predict Earthquakes?

The idea that our furry and feathered friends could warn us about impending doom is a nice one, but it’s been hard for scientists to prove. Pet owners have noted how their animals acted funny just before an earthquake since the days of ancient Greece. There’s no shortage of reports, but almost every one is anecdotal, based on opinions of what’s “normal” and “funny” for an animal. And the stories are generally reported long after the fact.

It’s not out of the question that animals may sense and react to some environmental change that we don’t notice—anything from seismic waves to changes in electric or magnetic fields. However, it’s not clear that earthquakes even produce such precursors. Plus, whatever the proposed cause, it’s nearly impossible to test. If we can’t predict earthquakes, we don’t know when to observe animals, and it’s even more difficult for researchers trying to reproduce the experiment later. The few “lucky” cases where quakes happened during animal experiments provide conflicting evidence. If you’re going to rely on a cat for earthquake advice, consult one with a degree in seismology.

7. How Do Organs Know When to Stop Growing?

Every mammal starts out as a single cell before growing into trillions of them. Usually, there’s tight control over the number and size of cells, tissue, and organs, but sometimes things go very wrong, resulting in anything from cancer to a leg that’s larger than its partner. So what’s sending the “stop growing” signal?

Four proteins that make up the core of what’s known as the Salvador-Warts-Hippo signaling pathway appear to help regulate growth for a number of organs. Shutoff signals sent down the pathway deactivate the protein that promotes growth, but that’s where scientists’ knowledge stops. Where these signals originate and which other elements are affecting SWH is unknown. Scientists continue to learn how to manipulate the pathway, discovering new triggers and working their way to the source, but there are still a lot of mysteries—including how we may be able to “turn off” cancer.

8. Are There Human Pheromones?

Can you actually smell someone’s fear? Or sniff out a rat? Plenty of animals communicate with chemical signals called pheromones, but whether humans are part of that club is a contentious issue. There’s some evidence of people making behavioral and physical changes in response to chemosignals, but scientists haven’t been able to figure out which chemicals trigger these responses. And despite what the labels on pheromone-infused colognes and hair gels will tell you, no compound has been identified as a human pheromone or linked to a specific response.

Moreover, if people are giving off pheromones, scientists aren’t sure how others are detecting them. Many mammals and reptiles have what’s known as a vomeronasal organ that detects pheromones. While some human noses contain the tiny organ, it may not be functional; sensory neurons have little or no connection with the nervous system. So for now, the answer to this question remains “maybe.” And that uncertainty truly stinks.

9. What’s the Deal With Gravity?

Of the four fundamental forces of nature, gravity is the runt of the litter. It holds the universe together, but it’s weaker than its three siblings: electromagnetism, weak nuclear forces, and strong nuclear forces. How much punier is it? The next step up, weak nuclear, is 10^26 (100,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000) times stronger. Gravity’s relatively feeble pull makes it hard to demonstrate with small objects in the lab.

Gravity doesn’t play well with the other forces either. Try as they might, scientists can’t use quantum theory and general relativity to explain gravity on small scales. And this incompatibility leaves us short of physicists’ grandest goal: a unified theory of everything.

Worse still, scientists can’t even figure out what gravity is made of. The other fundamental forces are all associated with particles that help carry them, but no one’s been able to detect the gravitational particle—the hypothetical graviton—even with the most super of supercolliders! And while some scientists are frustrated by its elusive nature, others know it’s just gravity’s way—the force has a reputation for bringing us down.

10. How Many Species Are There?

Taxonomists have been finding, naming, and describing species in an organized manner for more than 200 years, and they’re probably nowhere close to being finished. It’s not that they’re slacking off on the job either. In the last decade alone, scientists have reported more than 16,000 new species per year; in total, they’ve cataloged 1.2 million. It’s anybody’s guess how many are left undiscovered, though. Going out and finding every single species would take the 300,000 working taxonomists a lifetime, so they have to make educated guesses.

Making these kinds of extrapolations presents serious logistical hurdles. Biodiversity hotspots often fall in developing countries, which suffer from a shortage of taxonomists. Furthermore, up to 80 percent of the planet’s life may be hiding out in hard-to-reach places under the sea.

Given these troubles, it’s no wonder there’s a wide variance in expert guesses of how many species are left undiscovered. The most recent ballpark figures place the number between five and 15 million species, which makes the odds of someone discovering a unicorn just slightly better than we’d even dared to dream.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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Pop Culture
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
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At its best, Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’ Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY

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Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of this year and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In June, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE

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In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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10 Pieces of Lying Lingo from Across the United States
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Maligner. Fabricator. Fibber. Con artist. There are all sorts of ways you can say "liar," but in case you're running out, we’ve worked with the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to come up with 10 more pieces of lying lingo to add to your storytelling stash.

1. HASSAYAMPA

This term for a liar originally referred to a gold-rusher in Arizona, according to DARE. It can also be used to describe an old-timer, especially one who likes to exaggerate. The word hassayampa (also hassayamper) comes from the Hassayampa River, which is located in the Grand Canyon State. According to the Dictionary of American Folklore, “There was a popular legend that anyone who drank of the Hassayampa River in Arizona would never again tell the truth.”

2. JACOB

“You’re a Jacob!” you might say to a deceiver in eastern Alabama or western Georgia. This word—meaning a liar, a lie, and to lie—might be based on the Bible story of twin brothers Jacob and Esau. Esau, the elder and firstborn, stood to inherit his parents' estate by law. At the behest of his mother, Jacob deceived their father, blinded in old age, into thinking he was Esau and persuaded him to bestow him Esau’s blessing.

3. LIZA

Liza or Liza Jane can mean a lie or a liar. Hence, to lizar means to lie. Like Jacob, Liza is an eastern Alabama and western Georgia term. However, where it comes from isn’t clear. But if we had to guess, we’d say it’s echoic of lies.

4. STORY

“What a story you are,” you might say to a prevaricator in Virginia, eastern Alabama, or western Georgia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), story, meaning a liar, is mainly used in the phrase, “You story!” Story as a verb meaning “to give a false or malicious account, lie, tattle,” is an English dialect word, according to DARE, and is chiefly used in the South and South Midland states. “You storied to me about getting a drink,” you might tell someone who stood you up.

5. LOAD

To load or load up means to trick, mislead, or “deceive by yarns or windies,” according to cowboy lingo in northwest Texas. The term, which can also be a noun meaning a lie or liar, might also be heard in northwest Arkansas and the Ozarks.

6. YARN

To spin a yarn, or to tell a long tale, began as nautical slang, according to the OED, and comes from the idea of telling stories while doing seated work such as yarn-twisting. (The word yarn comes from the Old English gearn, meaning "spun fiber, spun wool.") By extension, a yarn is a sometimes marvelous or incredible story or tale, and to yarn means to tell a story or chat. In some parts of the U.S., such as Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, and Tennessee, to yarn means to lie or tell a falsehood. “Don’t yarn to me!” you might say. Street yarn refers to gossip in New York, Kentucky, and parts of New England.

7. WINDY

Telling a windy in the West? You’re telling an “extravagantly exaggerated or boastful story,” a tall tale, or a lie, says DARE. Wind has meant “vain imagination or conceit” since the 15th century, says OED.

8. LIE

In addition to being a falsehood or tall tale, a lie in the South and South Midland states can refer to the liar himself.

9. STRETCH THE BLANKET

You’ve probably heard of stretching the truth. How about stretching the blanket? This phrase meaning to lie or exaggerate is especially used in the South Midland states. To split the blanket, by the way, is a term in the South, South Midland, and West meaning to get divorced, while being born on the wrong side of the blanket means being born out of wedlock, at least in Indiana and Ohio.

10. WHACK

In the South and South Midland, whack refers to a lie or the act of lying. It might come from the British English colloquial term whacker, meaning anything abnormally large, especially a “thumping lie” or “whopper,” according to the OED. In case you were wondering, wack, as in “crack is wack,” is probably a back-formation from wacky meaning crazy or odd, also according to the OED. Wacky comes from whack, a blow or hit, maybe from the idea of being hit in the head too many times.

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