12 Common Things Science Still Hasn't Figured Out

Laughter: Still a scientific mystery
Laughter: Still a scientific mystery
iStock/pixelfit

We’ve learned enough about physics to send humans to the Moon. We’ve discovered that DNA carries our genetic information. Scientists have even gotten closer to solving the mystery of whether cats can behave as both solids and liquids [PDF].

But there are still some basic questions we haven’t answered, including these frustratingly persistent scientific mysteries.

1. Why We Cry

Some of us tear up watching a sad movie; sometimes, we're so happy that we burst into tears. But according to science, crying in response to intense emotions doesn’t seem to be a useful behavior, and it might not have a biological purpose.

What science does know is that not all tears are created equal. The chemical composition of the tears produced when we cry, which are called psychic tears, is slightly different from the composition of the tears that lubricate and help expel foreign bodies from the eyes. This has led some to theorize that the chemical makeup of psychic tears makes them emotionally healing. But evidence showing that the chemical differences have substantial psychological effects—let alone that such effects explain why crying evolved—is lacking.

And that’s not where the theories end. Some evolutionary psychologists think that crying may have evolved as a distress call that brings help: In a 2009 paper, one researcher suggested that tears may signal submission and helplessness by blurring vision, which prompts others to aid (or at least not harm) the crier. But other researchers have pointed out that we often cry after a stressful situation has resolved, not while it’s in progress and we need to signal for help; it’s also typical for people to avoid crying publicly and to look unfavorably on those who do. In any case, these hypotheses, like most in evolutionary psychology, are difficult to test.

2. How to Cure Hiccups

Maybe you hold your breath. Maybe you chug water. Unfortunately, nothing has been found to reliably eliminate hiccups, despite the overwhelming number of folk remedies on the internet. This sad state of affairs is likely due to insufficient research: Serious cases of the hiccups are rare, and the mild cases are brief and don’t usually cause problems.

Most of the treatments for severe cases of hiccups—doses of sedating antipsychotics like haloperidol, vagus nerve stimulation, digital rectal massage—aren’t exactly things you could try on your own. For now, you’ll have to endure hiccups or stick with unproven, but usually harmless, solutions. At least they give you an excuse to eat peanut butter by the spoonful.

3. How General Anesthesia Works

As you’re rolling into surgery, you probably assume that your doctors not only know how to perform the procedure, but understand how the drugs that knock you out actually do so. But you’d be wrong. Scientists do know that local anesthetics like Novocain block pain signals before they reach the central nervous system by altering the function of specific proteins on nerve cells. But the molecular basis of general anesthesia is more of a mystery. These drugs seem to interfere with the functions of a variety of proteins on nerve cells in the central nervous system, but how they accomplish this is not well understood. General anesthetics come in a variety of types, and they likely don’t all work the same way, so developing models of how the compounds work on the molecular level may continue to be a challenge.

4. How Tylenol Kills Pain

A layperson taking Tylenol to relieve pain might think it works like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, which block some enzymes and, in turn, the pain- and inflammation-causing chemicals they produce. But that’s not the case—acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, seems to need specific chemical conditions to work on those enzymes, and it doesn’t appear to reduce inflammation as the NSAIDs do.

Some researchers think acetaminophen may alter the way pain is perceived by interacting with certain proteins on nerve cells, possibly including serotonin receptors, cannabinoid receptors, opioid receptors, and specific channels on nerves in the spinal cord that transmit pain and itch signals. Acetaminophen byproducts have also been shown to activate these channels rather than shutting them down, further complicating the question.

5. Why We Sleep

Too little sleep impairs thinking in the short term and increases the risk of several serious diseases in the long term, while complete sleep deprivation is fatal. We may have evolved to sleep because it aids healing, memory consolidation, and other important processes, but we still have much to learn about the ways sleeping achieves these ends. Other roles for sleep, like conserving energy during times when it wouldn’t be advantageous to be awake (for example, during scorching-hot days in Death Valley) have been proposed as well.

At least for now, we don’t have a single, conclusive answer to the question of why we sleep. But no matter how sleeping arose, we can probably accept that it provided a substantial evolutionary advantage once in place, since sleep is found across much of the animal kingdom.

6. Why Only Some Thunderstorms Produce Tornadoes

A standard explanation of how tornadoes form is that they’re spawned when cold, dry air mingles with warm, humid air—that’s how we justify the fact that Tornado Alley in the central United States, where Arctic air, air from the Southwest, and air from the Gulf of Mexico mix, has so many tornadoes. But that’s not the whole story. These conditions do create more thunderstorms, but not all thunderstorms include tornadoes, and scientists aren’t sure why.

In some cases, tornadoes may form is when there are temperature changes in the air flowing downward around mesocyclones (vortexes within the types of storms tornadoes can come from). This idea has theoretical and experimental support, but even without these temperature variations, tornadoes can still form, demonstrating how much more we have to learn about the phenomenon.

7. Why We Itch

At a basic level, itch is an unpleasant sensation that triggers the urge to scratch. Scratching could end up making an itch worse, but it may also serve a purpose. Mechanical itch—the kind triggered when fine hairs on your body are disturbed—may alert you to the presence of biting insects or parasites, and scratching could brush them away.

This hypothesis is difficult to test, and it doesn’t cover chemical itch caused by histamine and other scratch-provoking substances. Long after you’ve missed your chance to brush a mosquito off your skin, histamine in the itchy bump it has left behind continues to compel you to scratch. Whether this type of itching serves a purpose, or is simply an incidental activation of the itch system, isn’t conclusively known.

8. How We Age

Despite what many beauty experts claim, no one really has aging figured out. Reactive chemicals called free radicals are often blamed, but they’re not the sole cause of aging, and our cells have numerous ways to help keep damage caused by excess free radicals to a minimum. Shortening of the telomeres, the protective caps of DNA at the ends of each chromosome, is another frequently cited cause of aging—but it’s not the only factor. Numerous other contributors to aging have been discovered, but no single factor explains all or even most of the aging process, making this a difficult question to answer.

9. Why We Laugh

Laughter, like crying, may have developed as a social tool. Laughter doesn't appear to be a uniquely human behavior, and it may not even be limited to primates. Rats produce laughter when tickled, for example, and many other social animals, such as dolphins [PDF], make specific sounds associated with play-fighting that have been likened to laughter.

A leading hypothesis for why we laugh is that laughter promotes pro-social behavior by letting playmates know that the fighting is just a game. But even if our interpretations of these behaviors are correct, it’s possible that humans evolved different uses for laughter after our evolutionary splits with other animal species, making the reason for human laughter another open question.

10. How and Why Animals Migrate Back to Their Birthplaces

Some animals migrate to the sites of their birth to mate—a practice known as natal philopatry—with stunning precision. Female Antarctic fur seals, for example, can return to within one body length of their exact birthplaces to breed.

But how do they get there after months or years away? One possibility is that some migratory animals navigate by sensing variations in Earth’s geomagnetic field. While this makes sense given that some migratory animals, such as sea turtles, are known to be highly sensitive to these variations, it has not been conclusively demonstrated that they navigate this way.

Other creatures, such as Pacific salmon, may use smell to direct them toward their breeding grounds. These fish have been shown experimentally to be able to home in on chemical cues from the water in which they developed into adults. But these chemical breadcrumbs wouldn’t be detectable across the vast ocean, meaning that even if the salmon use them to navigate, they must also have a way to direct themselves close enough to the source to smell them. The complete mechanisms behind natal philopatry, even in this well-studied case, are still unknown.

11. What Dreams are For

If the question of why we sleep is complicated, the question of why we dream is even more so. Dreaming—especially with vivid, fanciful dreams—is most correlated with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which itself is poorly understood. One thought is that dreaming evolved to help us sort out or rehearse solutions to problems in our waking lives, but there is no hard evidence that this is the case.

Although our dreams may feel significant to us, it’s also possible that they serve no purpose—they may simply be a byproduct of other processes that occur during REM sleep. Studying the neurological basis of the strange and highly subjective experience of dreaming is complicated, which is why understanding the origin of dreaming is still beyond our grasp.

12. How Turbulence Happens

Understanding how turbulence works is incredibly important from an engineering perspective, since it affects everything from how internal combustion engines work to how far golf balls can travel. And now that most of classical physics (encompassing the laws of mechanics, thermodynamics, and so on) has long been established, turbulence is considered one of the biggest remaining problems in the field. No one has figured out a way to perfectly model turbulent flow.

Modeling turbulence requires the Navier–Stokes equations, which describe the motion of fluids (liquids, gases, and plasmas). And that’s the main problem: These equations themselves are poorly understood—so much so that producing a proof about one of their basic properties is one of the seven Millennium Prize Problems. It’s considered one of the most important open classic questions in math—and there's a million dollars waiting for anyone who can figure it out.

Mapping Technology Reveals 'Lost Cities' on National Geographic

Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Blakeway Productions/National Geographic

Imagine what Pompeii looked like before the lava hit, or Mayan pyramids before the jungle took over. In the past decade, scientists have been able to explore human settlements long since abandoned by using a new wave of accessible technology. Instead of needing an expensive plane and crew to fly aerial sensors, for example, explorers can mount them on cheaper drones and pilot them into previously unreachable areas. The resulting data can tell us more about the past, and the future, than ever before.

That’s the premise of Lost Cities with Albert Lin, a new TV series premiering on National Geographic on Sunday, October 20.

Lin, an engineer and National Geographic Explorer, uses cutting-edge tools to shed light on centuries-old cities in the most beautiful places on Earth. Ground-penetrating radar reveals buried structures without disturbing the landscape. A drone-mounted remote sensing method called LIDAR—short for "Light Detection and Ranging"—shoots lasers at objects to generate data, which Lin visualizes with 3D mapping software. The results suggest what the ruins probably looked like when they were new.

Albert Lin and crew in Peru
Thomas Hardy, Adan Choqque Arce, Joseph Steel, Duncan Lees, Albert Lin, and Alonso Arroyo launch the LIDAR drone at Wat'a in Peru.
National Geographic

“It’s like a window into a world that we’ve never had before,” Lin tells Mental Floss. “It’s shooting millions of laser pulses per second through a distance of air. By digitally removing the top layer of everything above the ground—trees, brush, cacti—you’re washing away the past. All of the sudden you’re left with these fingerprints—experiments in how we organized ourselves through time.”

For the six-episode series, Lin and the expert storytelling team were dispatched to the South Pacific, the Middle East, the Andes, the Arctic, and other destinations. Lin explains that while most of the sites are known to archaeologists, they’ve never been so precisely mapped in three-dimensional detail.

In the first episode, Lin travels to Nan Madol, an enigmatic complex of temples and other structures on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. With the help of local researchers and indigenous leaders, Lin and the team scan the ruins and digitally erase trees, water, and forest undergrowth to unveil the complex's former grandeur.

“Technology and innovation have always been that gateway to go beyond the threshold, and see what’s around the corner,” Lin says. “Seeing these worlds for the first time since they were left, it’s almost like reversing the burning of the library of Alexandria. We can take the synthesis of knowledge of all these watershed moments of our human journey, and imagine a better future.”

Lost Cities With Albert Lin premieres Sunday, October 20 at 10/9c and resumes on Monday, October 21 at 10/9c on National Geographic.

8 Ways Science Can Boost Your Halloween Fun

iStock
iStock

Halloween is all about embracing the supernatural, but science shouldn't entirely fall by the wayside during the spookiest of holidays. Here are a few ways it can actually improve your holiday, from making trick-or-treating easier to fooling your brain into thinking you're eating tasty treats even though you're nibbling on candy cast-offs.

1. Slow the decomposition of your Halloween jack-o'-lantern.

A Halloween display of five jack-o-lanterns
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You don't have to be an expert gardener to keep your jack-o'-lantern looking fresh all Halloween season long. While scouting out pumpkins, pick hard, unblemished ones and steer clear of those with watery dark spots. These splotches indicate frost damage.

Hold off on carving until right before Halloween so your gourds won't rot—but if you can't resist, try squirting their exteriors with lemon juice after you're done slicing and dicing. The acid inhibits pumpkin enzymes, which react with oxygen and cause browning. A light misting of bleach solution will help keep fungus at bay. Some apply vegetable oil or Vaseline to prevent shriveling and drying. We experimented with various techniques in this video.

For extra TLC, you might even want to bring your jack-o'-lanterns in at night if temperatures dip; if you live in a hot and humid area, extend its life by placing it in the fridge overnight. Try using glow sticks or LED lights instead of flesh-singeing candles.

2. Use apps to plan a treat-or-treating route.

Three children in Halloween costumes trick-or-treating
iStock

Thanks to technology, trick-or-treaters (and their hungry adult companions) can now scout out which neighbors are doling out the best candy and which are sticking with Tootsie Rolls, apples, and toothbrushes. Simply download the app for Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social network, to check out an interactive "treat map" that lets users tag whether their home is handing out treats, and what that treat is.

Since safety is far more important than sugar, guardians should also consider adding a tracking app to their arsenal come Halloween, especially if their kid's venturing out alone. The Find My Family, Friends, Phone app gives the real-time locations of trick-or-treaters, provides alerts for when they turn home, and also comes with a "panic" button that provides emergency contact details when pressed.

3. Optimize your candy's flavor (even if it's SweeTarts).

Hard candies and gummies strewn across a table
iStock

Not crazy about this year's Halloween loot? Fool yourself into thinking those black licorice pieces and peanut chews taste better than they actually do by eating them after you scarf down the chocolate and Sour Patch Kids. According to a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, being aware that these items of candy are your very last candies actually tricks the brain into appreciating them more (and thus thinking they're tastier than they really are).

Meanwhile, a 2013 study from the same journal found that creating a candy-eating ritual enhances flavor and overall satisfaction. Nibble the ridged edges off a Reese's peanut butter cup before tackling the creamy center, sort the M&Ms by color, and take your time unwrapping a chocolate bar.

4. Create a DIY fog machine with carbon.

Dry ice in a glass bowl
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Save money at Party City by creating your own fog machine at home. When dropped in water, dry ice—or frozen carbon dioxide—creates a gas that's a combination of carbon dioxide and water vapor, but looks like the fog you'd see rolling through a haunted graveyard [PDF].

5. Eat sort-of-heart-healthy Halloween candy.

A stack of dark chocolate chunks on a dark stone background
iStock

Halloween candy isn't always bad for you. While shopping for this year's trick-or-treat bounty, steer clear of sugary confections and milk chocolate mini-bars. Opt for dark chocolate treats instead. Research suggests that our gut microbes ferment the antioxidants and fiber in cocoa, creating heart-healthy anti-inflammatory compounds. Plus, dark chocolate or cocoa also appears to help lower blood pressure for people with hypertension, decrease bad cholesterol, and stave off cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other benefits.

6. Analyze data on Halloween candy trends and give the people what they want.

Lollipops
5second/iStock via Getty Images

Thanks to data science, you can make sure you're giving out the best treats on the block. Bulk candy retailer CandyStore.com combed through 10 years of data (2007 to 2016, with a particular focus on the months leading up to Halloween) to gauge America's top-selling sweets. They created an interactive map to display their results, which includes the top three most popular Halloween handouts in each state and Washington, D.C. Be prepared for plenty of stoop-side visitors and adorable photo ops.

7. Bake better Halloween treats with chemistry.

Frosted Halloween cookies shaped like ghosts and pumpkins
iStock

Cooking is essentially chemistry—and depending on your technique, you can whip up chewy, fluffy, or decadent Halloween treats according to taste.

Folding chunks of chilled butter into your dough will give you thick, cake-like cookies, as will swapping baking soda for baking powder. When butter melts, its water converts into gas, which leaves lots of tiny holes. If the butter flecks in question are colder and larger, they'll leave bigger air pockets. As for the baking powder, it produces carbon dioxide gas both when it's mixed into the dough and when it's heated. For an extra boost in texture, you can also try adding more flour.

Prefer chewier cookies? Start out with melted butter in the dough, and stick with plain old baking soda.

And for extra-fragrant and flavorful baked goods, opt to use dark sugars—like molasses, honey, and brown sugar—because they're filled with glucose and fructose instead of plain old sucrose. As cookies bake, they undergo two processes: caramelization, in which the sugar crystals liquefy into a brown soup; and the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between the dough's proteins and amino acids (flour, egg, etc.) and the reducing sugars that causes tasty browning.

8. Take deep breaths to stay calm in haunted houses.

A brown-haired woman in a red polka dot blouse standing with a frightened expression next to a spider web.
iStock

Halloween can be tough for people with anxiety or low thresholds for fear. While visiting a haunted house or watching a scary movie, remember to take deep breaths, which fends off the body's flight-or-fight response, and reframe your anxiety in your mind as "excitement." It's also a good idea to schedule spine-chilling activities after an activity that triggers feel-good endorphins—say, after a walk to check out your neighbors' awesome Halloween displays.

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