9 'Scientific Mysteries' the Internet Loves, Debunked

John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Whether it involves aliens, moving rocks, or crop circles, no one loves a scientific mystery like the internet—even if that "mystery" was solved years ago using all of the rigors of science. Here are 10 so-called mysteries that the global online community can't bear to part with, debunked once and for all (we hope).

1. KUMMAKIVI BALANCING ROCK // RUOKOLAHTI, FINLAND

The "Mystery": This so-called "strange rock" is a balancing act comprised of two rocks, one teetering precipitously on top of the other. Locals of ancient yesteryear, apparently perplexed to discover that the top rock was in no danger of sliding off the bottom rock despite the extremely small point of contact between them—and was, in fact, too heavy to be moved at all—decided giants tossing boulders explained the phenomenon. "And it's true," one theorist wrote: "There is still no exact scientific explanation, but contrary to the laws of physics, the stone stands quite firmly and human strength is not enough to move it."

Science Says: It's not true, actually. Geologists put forward a much more likely cause for this balancing rock and the countless others that exist worldwide: Melting glaciers deposited them where they currently squat.

2. FAIRY CIRCLES // NAMIBIA

geographic features called fairy circles in namibia, created by termites and plants
iStock

The "Mystery": Are they footprints of the gods? Barren patches caused by a dragon's fiery breath? Marks left behind by UFOs? All of these ideas were perpetuated by the internet after tour guides in the region passed them on to tourists, according to The New York Times. The scientific community was pretty sure the dirt circles found in the Namib Desert were none of those things, even though they were hard-pressed to come up with a more logical explanation—until recently.

Science Says: Research published in 2017 suggests that they're the work of colonies of termites, which clear circular patches around their nests; the barrenness of these shapes is possibly enhanced by plants as they stretch their roots to reach scarce water—which prevents other plants from growing in the process.

3. KLERKSDORP SPHERES // OTTOSDAL, SOUTH AFRICA

klerksdorp sphere
Robert Huggett

The "Mystery": These grooved spheres have been the subject of many strange theories, most revolving around the existence of intelligent aliens who made the pod-like trinkets—which apparently can rotate on their axes—using intelligent alien technology and otherworldly metals some 3 billion years ago. Virtuescience.com has proposed a whole host of theories about the spheres' uses, including ancient ammunition, messages from space, and currency.

Science Says: Geologists have a more tempered explanation for how the spheres came to be: They're concretions—little balls of rock that have grown around a core object—of the minerals hematite, wollastonite, or pyrite that have hardened over time in nests of volcanic ash or sediment. The myth of alien metalworking skills was debunked back in 1996, but it still resurfaces every once in a while.

4. WEBDRIVER TORSO // YOUTUBE

The "Mystery": The Webdriver Torso YouTube account has been freaking out the internet with its videos for several years. Commentors posited that the videos—which were usually 11 seconds long and featured colored rectangles moving around on a white screen—were spy code, alien code, or recruitment searches for expert hackers. At the channel's peak, videos were uploaded as often as every two minutes.

Science Says: Google revealed in 2014 that they were simply video clips the company had created to test the quality of YouTube videos. "We're never gonna give you uploading that's slow or loses video quality, and we're never gonna let you down by playing YouTube in poor video quality," the company told Engadget in a statement/Rickroll. "That's why we're always running tests like Webdriver Torso." Conspiracy theorists, however, pointing out that videos had been uploaded elsewhere before Google took credit for the channel, continued to suspect darker intentions. One reddit user posited in 2015 that Google "could … have a secret agenda." Maybe Google wants this chatter to continue: Even today, googling "Webdriver Torso" will yield an easter egg.

5. SAILING STONES // DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA

Sailing stones of Death Valley National Park
Thomas Hawk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The "Mystery": Known alternately as sliding, walking, or moving rocks, for more than 100 years these so-called "living stones" have seemingly slid across the floor of a dry lake bed all on their own, leaving trails of their movements—and causing plenty of speculation. Magnetic force is one popular theory, along with psychic energy and the interventions of alien spacecraft. Some claim a 700-pound stone named Karen disappeared for two years, only to somehow reappear again.

Science Says: In 2014, scientists studied the situation and discovered that the stones move when the lake bed they rest on becomes covered with rainwater that freezes overnight into a sheet of ice; when the ice melts, it pushes the rocks here and there—assisted by Death Valley's powerful winds. (No word on what Karen's been up to, though.)

6. NAZCA LINES // NAZCA, PERU

Aerial view of a geoglyph representing a Duck or a Dinosaurius at Nazca Lines
Martin Bernetti, AFP/Getty Images

The "Mystery": If conspiracy theorists like aliens, they love ancient aliens. When it comes to the Nazca lines, they speculate that ancient astronauts from outer space drew almost 1200 geometric, animal, and plant shapes in a vast, arid plateau on Peru's Pampas de Jumana. Ranker.com also purports that the designs were made by humans, "most likely to signal extraterrestrials," and possibly to provide a runway for their space ships.

Science Says: The truth—which has been known since at least the 1940s—is that the figures were created 1500 to 2000 years ago by the Nazca people, who removed rocks and/or a portion of topsoil to create an image in negative. At first, scientists believed the figures were astronomical symbols, or an early sort of calendar, but later research indicated the drawings were used ritualistically, in ceremonies involving the quest for scarce water.

7. BERMUDA TRIANGLE // ATLANTIC OCEAN

aerial view of bermuda

Peter Burka, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The "Mystery": Three hundred ships and planes, all supposedly sunk or gone missing in the same general area in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: The Bermuda Triangle (so-named by pulp writer Vincent Gaddis in 1964) has had conspiracy theorists of all stripes spouting endless theories for years. Atlantis! Alien interventions! An opening in the fabric of the universe! Attack by sea monsters! A popular theory in the 1970s involved magnetism wreaking havoc on navigational devices, and one more recent theory suggested that bursting bubbles of methane gas were responsible for missing craft. Online speculations, like this one from BuzzFeedBlue, attempt to stoke the (nonexistent) fire.

Science Says: This has been settled for decades—there is no mystery. In 1975, librarian turned investigative author Larry Kusche unearthed the actual facts: Some "missing" vessels were simply made up; some sank far from the Triangle; and others along the route—which is still heavily trafficked today—fell prey to the region's frequent bad storms.

8. CROP CIRCLES // BRITAIN

The "Mystery": A lot of otherworldly meaning has been ascribed to these designs squished into fields of wheat, rapeseed, and barley. Once again, aliens—mathematical-genius aliens this time—are said to be responsible for them, hiding complicated messages in the circles' sometimes intricate imagery. Others suggest they're spiritual centers that beam energy. In the video above, a farmer who found an intricate crop spiral in his field says, "I don't know what caused it, but I'm not sure that it was made by people."

Science Says: The truth is simple, and perhaps disappointing, which may explain why the alien theory never seems to die: The circles are made under cover of darkness by people, sometimes with the permission of the farmers whose land they're created on. They use measuring devices, rollers, and other low-tech gear to push patterns into grain.

9. ATA THE MUMMY // ATACAMA, CHILE

The "Mystery": When a small, oddly shaped, strangely featured mummy was discovered in Chile's Atacama Desert in 2003, some on the internet called it proof that beings from space had once lived among humans—and perhaps even mated with them. The mummy had 10 ribs instead of the typical 12; a strangely sloped head; and at just 6 inches long, was fetus-sized, but its bones were as dense as a child's. Some thought that the 9 percent of the mummy's DNA that didn't match the human DNA they compared it to was further evidence of its non-human origins. As UFO/ET conspiracy theorist Steven Greer says in the above clip, "Is that all computer read error? Maybe. Is it what's called DNA junk? Perhaps. We don't know."

Science Says: Testing of Ata's genome destroyed these theories, proving that Ata was 100 percent human and died, likely in utero, from genetic defects. Many of these mutations related to bone development, explaining her missing ribs and thick bones. Exposure to nitrate-contaminated drinking water may have been a factor in her deformations as well. And that 9 percent genetic difference? Standard contamination of a mummy that was exposed to the open air.

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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