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.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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8-Year-Old Twinkies Intrigue Fungus Experts

Photog Bill, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photog Bill, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

An 8-year-old box of Twinkies has disproved the myth that the Hostess product never goes bad. Upon closer inspection, it also revealed that the snack may decompose differently than your average foodstuff. As NPR reports, the varying mold growth on the Twinkies was so unusual, it caught the attention of fungi scientists.

The story of the putrefied pastries began in 2012, when nature photographer Colin Purrington learned of Hostess Brands' impending bankruptcy. Fearing Twinkies would disappear from shelves for good, he bought a box for posterity. It sat in his basement until he was hit with a junk food craving earlier this year.

When Purrington ripped open the 8-year-old package, he was surprised to find that the snacks inside were inedible. He had assumed Twinkies were indestructible, but the contents of the box proved otherwise: The cake he had bitten into tasted like what he described as "old sock," another one had a dark spot on it, and a third had shriveled up and turned gray.

After Purrington shared photos of his discovery online, he sent the Twinkies to Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson, scientists at West Virginia University in Morgantown who specialize in fungi. In the past, the researchers have studied how well fungi grow on preservative-laden food, like Peeps. They suspected that fungal growth was responsible for the Twinkies' decay—they just didn't know what kind.

The shriveled-up Twinkie appeared to be shrink-wrapped in its wrapper, a result of the fungus inside consuming more gases than it produced. The fungus may have stopped growing once it ran out of air in the package. When they unwrapped it, the scientists encountered a rock-solid material they needed a bone marrow biopsy tool to penetrate. The Twinkie wasn't hard all the way through, however: The soft, creamy center survived, suggesting the fungi was more attracted to the cake than the filling.

Samples of the Twinkie marked with the dark circle pointed to the presence of Cladosporium, one of the most common airborne molds found indoors. The researchers haven't been able to obtain a living spore sample from the hardened pastry, but they're still trying. Further lab dish tests will hopefully reveal the species of fungi that mummified one of the world's most shelf-stable baked goods.

[h/t NPR]