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The Mysterious Holes in Indiana’s Sand Dunes

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Something strange is happening on one of Indiana’s sand dunes. Holes, about a foot wide and as much as 11 feet deep, are opening up in the sand on Mount Baldy at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and then vanishing within a day.

The holes made themselves known in the worst way: One swallowed a six-year-old boy last summer, burying him under 11 feet of sediment for hours. He survived, but the incident prompted the National Park Service to close Mount Baldy to the public indefinitely. Almost a year later, at least two other holes have opened and closed, and 66 anomalies have been detected in the sand.

Video shows researchers using long sticks to poke at “soft spots”—depressions in the sand where holes could open up. Grains of sand disappear into the 126-foot tall dune as if being sucked into the bottom half of an hourglass. It’s enough to make one shiver, conjuring up terrifying thoughts of being buried alive. Scarier still: Researchers don’t know for sure what’s causing the holes.

"We're seeing what appears to be a new geological phenomenon," says geologist Erin Argyilan, who has been studying the holes for several months.

But there is a working theory. The dune currently sits on top of what was once a forest, and the thought is that trees buried beneath the sand for the last century are rotting and disintegrating, leaving holes where the trunks once were. "The age of the materials and the wet conditions during the spring of 2013 may have forced these materials to become unstable, collapsing and creating openings to the surface," says the park's website.

Mount Baldy is one of Indiana’s fastest-moving dunes. The wind causes it to move between 11 and 20 feet to the south each year, park ranger Bruce Rowe tells mental_floss. “We have seen evidence of trees that have been uncovered before as the dune moved on,” Rowe says. “But in the past they were always partially decayed stumps of trees. They were called ghost forests. They fell apart as they were exposed to the air. But the idea of holes rather than stumps is completely new to science.”

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It’s also baffling because, until now, dunes were considered solid structures. “We contacted various coastal dune specialists, and one of them said, ‘If I hadn’t heard this had actually happened from you, I’d say it was impossible,’” Rowe says.

So what’s to be done? This summer, a team of researchers will use ground-penetrating radar to map the dune’s thickness and identify potential openings at its base, and take core samples to identify materials within the dune. Dr. G. William Monaghan, a geologist and geoarchaeologist with the Indiana University Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, says they also hope to use an unmanned aerial vehicle (a.k.a. a drone) equipped with lasers that can accurately map the area’s topography and identify changes. “...Or we’ll see if there’s a void down there,” Monaghan adds. “In a way we’re not sure what we’re gonna see until we’re out there seeing it.”

Until researchers get to the bottom of the mystery, Mount Baldy will remain closed. “This has become a really fascinating science mystery that’s playing out in our park,” Rowe says.

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What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
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From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

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History
Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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