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10 Mindboggling Scientific Mysteries We Still Can't Solve

Updated on May 19, 2017
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia loves researching and writing on scientific topics that stimulate the imagination.


Did the Universe Start With a Big Bang?

The Big Bang Theory has been the theory to account for the beginning of the universe for years. But is it indeed the ultimate answer? Ironically, its very name speaks of skepticism. The theory was dubbed “Big Bang” by one of its fiercest opponents, Fred Hoyle. He advanced an altogether different idea; of a static and eternal universe. But whereas the name he gave to a theory as a joke is well and alive, his own thesis is not. In 1929 Edwin Hubble confirmed that the universe was expanding. More evidence in favor of the Big Bang Theory followed; in 1965 the existence of CMB radiation was confirmed, a residue of the Big Bang that scientists predicted back in the 1940s.

What is the hitch, then? The measurements Hubble made in 1929 didn’t seem so accurate in 1990. In fact, the universe was expanding at a much slower rate than the Big Bang Theory assumed. In response to this, Alan Guth came up with the theory of inflation. It claimed that initially the universe expanded very rapidly over a small amount of time, then slowed down considerably. The problem is that although its mathematics are fine, it cannot be tested. As the critics of the Big Bang Theory have pointed out, it is all too convenient. Maybe it’s the theory that’s wrong?

Can We Predict Earthquakes?

Our understanding of Earth’s movements started to form relatively late. Only in 1912 Alfred Wegener came up with the idea that the continents once were joined in a large mainland. In the 1960s the US navy observed that the bottom of the ocean was composed of ranges of mountains instead of being smooth as had been assumed. They concluded that it was also subjected to volcanic and earthquake activity. Thanks to this discovery, scientists could advance plate tectonics theory which explains the large-scale motion of Earth’s lithosphere. We now know that an earthquake occurs when two plates move really close each other. We’ve been able to localize the hottest spots on Earth where two plates are rubbing against each other. But the predictions as to the time earthquakes should occur aren’t shockingly precise. Scientists know for example that an earthquake is due in Los Angeles soon. And “soon” means either tomorrow or in 30 years from now. Or anytime in between, really.


What Causes Ice Ages?

We’ve got too many answers to this one. Probably because the causes behind the appearance of ice ages are not that straightforward. Milutin Milankovitch was of the first scientists to propose a solution in the 1920s. He claimed that the Earth received different amounts of solar energy at different times because of the variations that occur cyclically to its cosmic movements. At first it seemed about right, as an ice age appears on average every 100,000 years. However, Milankovitch’s theory can’t account for some serious irregularities in this pattern. As, for instance, this one period of 200 million years without any ice age or, believe it or not, without any Saber-toothed squirrel trying hopelessly to wrench a frozen acorn from ice. Recent theories have focused on the greenhouse effect, but this opens up more questions than it answers. What causes fluctuations of carbon dioxide without human intervention? Scientists bicker heartily about it, but the truth is we don’t know yet.


Is There a Missing Link?

A missing link is said to be a species between apes and humans. The most famous discovery was made in 1912 by Charles Dawson on Piltdown Common near Lewes England. He found a skull with a human cranium and an apelike jaw. However, this extraordinary finding quickly (well, after 41 years) turned out to be an extraordinary hoax. It was made by the keeper of zoology at the British Musem, Hinton, of a human cranium and an orangutan jaw. Hinton started working at the museum as a volunteer. When he asked for a salary he was sneeringly refused by the keeper of paleontology, Arthur Smith Woodward. So Hinton hatched a revenge plan. He fabricated the skull in order to destroy Woodward’s scientific career in case he ever proclaimed its authenticity. Because of the time that elapsed between the discovery and exposing the hoax, the plan didn’t work too well. The only reputation it managed to tarnish was Hinton’s. Poetic justice, you may say. Another candidate for the missing link was the Neanderthal. In 1956 William Straus and A. J. E proposed the idea that Neanderthals was our immediate ancestors. However, new techniques of dating fossils indicated that humans and Neanderthals had lived simultaneously and probably interacted. It seems that the vacancy is still open.

Why Did It Take so Long to Develop Abstract Systems of Communication?

The earliest examples of art date from about 35,000 years ago.However, written language developed only 7,000 years ago and another 2,000 years had to elapse for mathematics to emerge. Those two inventions were the seeds of civilization. Mathematics and writing were useful, for instance, for the mundane purpose of tax collecting. But why was there such a large gap between the first abstract drawings and the first system of writing? The most likely thesis says that evolutionary changes in the brain had to occur. But of what nature? The brain is such a complex structure it may take another couple of centuries before we gain a decent understanding of its workings and can pinpoint the exact alteration.


How Do We Learn Language?

As it is seemingly the most natural process, we don’t tend to get bogged down in the details. Scientists hadn’t been too much concerned about it until the emergence of psychoanalysis and the shift in thinking about children. In the 1920s Jean Piaget developed the theory of cognitive development. The process of language acquisition was supposed to be encoded in genes and occur in a rigorous order. Piaget conducted his studies mainly by interacting with children. However, other scientists that tried to repeat his studies ended up with different results. Especially the claim about the rigid stages of development came under fire. Eventually, the method of interviewing children was deemed inappropriate, as it was liable to over-interpretation. Since the 1990s many psycholinguists have inclined to the view that people have a language instinct. Just as spiders instinctively spin webs, children learn the language of their parents. But what is the nature of this instinct? What part do other people play in children’s language acquisition? How come children are able to create utterly original sentences?


What Are Black Holes Really Like?

The concept of black holes, as innovative concepts often do, met with disbelief at first. On hearing about such an eccentric idea, the physicist Sir Arthur Eddington understandably exclaimed: “I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in such absurd way!” Black holes were anticipated by Oppenheimer in 1938 and then described mathematically with the aid of his student, Snyder. Indeed, we can sympathize with Sir Arthur Eddington, for the behavior of black holes is counter-intuitive. For instance, from the outside a black hole seems frozen, but for an observer on the surface, it is not static, it pulls him or her inside. Nobody really knows what’s going on inside a black hole, because no-one really approached it. In the 1990s scientists discovered the existence of super-massive black holes – the size of a billion suns. They tend to be situated at the center of elliptical galaxies and it seems that they are the seeds of those galaxies. What part did they play in creating those galaxies?

How Old Is the Universe?

Old. But to be sure, it’s quite a conundrum. The answers vary from 8 to 20 billion years. I think we can all agree it’s a generous margin of error. Still, the most mind-boggling aspect of the problem is that the universe might actually be… younger than its oldest stars. Studies done in 1994 showed that the universe was 8 billion years old rather than 14-20, as had been assumed before. Which meant that the oldest star in the Milky Way was older than the universe. Luckily for logic, measurements done in 1999 showed that the universe was actually a bit older than that – our oldest star might have just squeezed in. It was a fleeting triumph, though. Yet another study, this time with cutting-edge new technology, shows that the universe is actually 15% smaller, which means it is also 15% younger. You guessed it, according to these results there are older stars in the universe than the universe itself. I think it’s fair to ask at this point what the heck is going on? Can it be that there is some fundamental flaw in our understanding of astronomy?


Do Multiple Universes Exist?

Stephen Hawking says yes. But let’s start from the beginning. The science fiction writer Jack Williamson was the first to propose the concept of multiple universes in 1952. He did it so skillfully that it inspired the physicist Hugh Everett who in 1957 made multiple universes the subject of his doctoral thesis. According to this model, every event created a number of universes in which every possible outcome of this event was taking place. John Wheeler, who oversaw Everett, proposed a different version of this idea. According to him the universe expanded to a certain point and then contracted to an atom, producing a new big bang. Trinh Xuan Thuan noted that it had its weak points – there is no proof that the universe contains enough matter to collapse back on itself. Stephen Hawking developed his version with the aid of quantum theory. Quantum theory assumes a wave function that contains every possible future state of a given particle. If the universe has its own wave function, it must mean that there exists an infinite number of universes with every possible future. One hitch is that we can’t really check those theories. By definition, multiple universes cannot communicate with one another.


How Will the Universe End?

It’s another mystery we can’t solve at this point. As we have seen, John Wheeler claims that the universe will start contracting until it achieves the size of an atom. Another big bang will take place and the universe will rise like a phoenix. There is another possibility, though. The universe simply will go on expanding and the galaxies will draw further apart. Without any collisions between them, new stars won’t be born. Eventually, the existing stars will use up their fuel and there will be nothing.


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