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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?

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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.


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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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

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