Alaub Ruazuelo via NASA
Alaub Ruazuelo via NASA

4 Burning Questions We Just Can’t Answer

Alaub Ruazuelo via NASA
Alaub Ruazuelo via NASA

Despite all of the incredible things humans have figured out, we don’t know everything.

1. What’s inside a black hole?

We’ll probably never know. Nothing can communicate from inside of one—light, radio waves, anything. Even if we could send something (like a signal) into a black hole, we couldn’t get it back. The closest thing we have to an answer employs two established theories (gravity and quantum mechanics). Scientists even have a name for this combined theory—quantum gravity—but they still don’t get how it works. For now, they think everything sucked into a black hole is bunched up and stacked on top of itself in its center, like a big, galactic dogpile. Other people think black holes could be a gate to another universe. But until someone goes into one and comes back? No idea.

2. Why do we have an appendix?

iStock

Total mystery! It’s just there (unless you had it removed). A 2007 issue of the Journal of Theoretical Biology posited that the vestigial organ once acted as a storehouse for “good” bacteria, so when pre-medicine bodies were hit with dire illnesses affecting the gut, an appendix could help repopulate the stomach with disease-fighting bacteria. Scientists agree that this guess is as good as they come, but the author of the study admitted there’s no way to confirm it without a “very expensive, heinous” experiment that might involve infecting people who don’t have access to modern medicine with dysentery. No thanks!

3. What’s the CIA hiding about JFK’s assassination?

Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Maybe nothing—or not. In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald applied for a visa to travel to Cuba, via the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. The CIA picked up on it. Five senior CIA officers signed off on a cable basically saying Oswald wasn’t a concern (whoops). Of the approximately 3,600 JFK files that remain sealed in the National Archives, 1,100 concern the CIA. And while the JFK Records Act of ’92 mandated all files related to the assassination be released in 2017, it also holds provisions that if the files could potentially compromise national security upon release, they can remain classified ... of course.

4. Does Tony die in The Sopranos finale?

Alamy

In the most infamous last scene in TV, Tony Soprano eats onion rings to “Don’t Stop Believin’” in a sketchy New Jersey diner, then...nothing. It cut to black. Outrage and conspiracy theories abounded! Show creator David Chase was mostly mum on it until an April 2015 Directors Guild of America interview: “I never considered the black a shot. I just thought that what we see is black. The biggest feeling I was going for ... was don’t stop believing. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it’s really worth it.” In other words: You’ll never know.


nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
iStock
iStock

Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
iStock
iStock

The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios