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.

Not-So-Fancy Feast: Your Cat Probably Would Eat Your Rotting Corpse

Tycson1/iStock via Getty Images
Tycson1/iStock via Getty Images

Cat enthusiasts often cite the warmth and companionship offered by their pet as reasons why they’re so enamored with them. Despite these and other positive attributes, cat lovers are often confronted with the spurious claim that, while their beloved furry pal might adore them when they’re alive, it won’t hesitate to devour their corpse if they should drop dead.

Though that’s often dismissed as negative cat propaganda spread by dog people, it turns out that it’s probably true. Fluffy might indeed feast on your flesh if you happened to expire.

A horrifying new case study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences offers the fresh evidence. The paper, first reported by The Washington Post, documents how two cats reacted in the presence of a corpse at Colorado Mesa University’s Forensic Investigation Research Station, or body farm, where the deceased are used to further forensic science for criminal investigations.

The study’s authors did not orchestrate a meeting between cat and corpse. The finding happened by accident: Student and lead author Sara Garcia was scanning surveillance footage of the grounds when she noticed a pair of cats trespassing. The cats, she found, were interested in the flesh of two corpses; they gnawed on human tissue while it was still in the early stages of decomposition, stopping only when the bodies began leaching fluids.

The cats, which were putting away one corpse each, didn’t appear to have a taste for variety, as they both returned to the same corpse virtually every night. The two seemed to prefer the shoulder and arm over other body parts.

This visual evidence joins a litany of reports over the years from medical examiners, who have observed the damage left by both cats and dogs who were trapped in homes with deceased owners and proceeded to eat them. It’s believed pets do this when no other food source is available, though in some cases, eating their human has occurred even with a full food bowl. It’s something to consider the next time your cat gives you an affectionate lick on the arm. Maybe it loves you. Or maybe it has something else in mind.

[h/t The Washington Post]

Wolf Puppies Play Fetch, Too, Study Finds

Christina Hansen Wheat
Christina Hansen Wheat

It took thousands of years of selective breeding for wolves to become the Golden Retrievers you see at dog parks today. Domesticated dogs are very different from their wild counterparts, but according to a new study, they may have a surprising trait in common. Researchers found that some wolf puppies are willing to play fetch with total strangers, suggesting that following human commands is intrinsic to canines.

For their study in the journal iScience, researchers from Stockholm University in Sweden set out to find how domestication affects behaviors in young wolves. They raised litters of wolf and dog pups separately from 10 days old and placed them in various scenarios.

When the scientists tested how the wolf puppies would respond to a game of fetch, they expected to be ignored. Chasing a ball and bringing it back requires understanding human commands and obeying them—abilities that were thought to only have emerged in dogs post-domestication.

The first two wolf groups met expectations by showing little interest in the toy, but something different happened with the third set. Three eight-week old pups went after the ball and brought it back when they were encouraged to do so. This was the case even when the person giving the commands was someone they had never met before.

Even though most of the puppies didn't play fetch, the fact that those who did belonged to the same litter indicates a "standing variation" for a retrieving trait in wolves. "When you talk about a specific trait in the context of standing variation, it means that there is variation for the expression of this trait within a given population," co-author Christina Hansen Wheat tells Mental Floss. "For our study it suggests that, while probably rare, standing variation in the expression of human-directed behavior in ancestral populations could have been an important target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication." In other words, ancient people seeking to domesticate wolves might have focused on some wolves' innate ability to follow human commands.

The first dogs were domesticated as far back as 33,000 years ago. Over millennia, humans have selected for traits like loyalty, friendliness, and playfulness to create the modern dog, but these new findings could mean that the dog's earliest canine ancestors were genetically predisposed toward some of these behaviors.

"All three litters were brought up under identical and standardized conditions across years," Hansen says of the pups in the study. "With this significant effort to control the environmental conditions, it is likely that the differences in behavior across litters to some extent have a genetic basis."

After raising the dog and wolf litters for three years and completing that part of their study, the researchers will continue to analyze their data to see if there are any other adorable (or weird) traits the two groups share.

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