When it comes to mysteries of science, even the experts can be stymied sometimes. And then, with a little contemplation and testing, a simple solution can present itself. And every so often, the solution is so simple it makes the whole problem look a little goofy.
10. Europe’s 300-Year Vanilla Problem
Vanilla comes from an orchid native to Mexico where the plants are pollinated by wild bees. Today the price of vanilla can get up to $600 per kilogram. The reason is that it’s hard as heck to harvest vanilla.
To start with, of all the hundreds of orchid species, just one grows vanilla. And if you don’t have the bees to pollinate it, then you have a very uphill battle ahead of you. Even today, pollinating vanilla by hand needs to be done by experts who have been in the industry for years. The flowers bloom for only a single day. Then the process of growing, drying and processing the vanilla takes about a year. And that’s today. So what happened hundreds of years ago?
Europeans brought vanilla back to the continent in the 1500s, where it promptly did nothing. It literally took over 300 years before a Belgian horticulturist tried to look at things scientifically to determine why the vanilla in Europe wasn’t paying off. He was the one that determined Mexico’s Melipona bee was the natural pollinator of the plant and that nothing in Europe was doing the job. So what they were missing was bees. Just bees.
It wouldn’t be until 1841 that a slave named Edmond Albius on an island in the Indian Ocean would figure out a method of hand pollination. Had it not been for a little horticultural science, who knows how long it would have been before anyone figured out a way to farm vanilla.
9. The Parkes Radio Telescope Mystery Signals
In New South Wales, Australia, you’ll find the Parkes Observatory, home to a very large radio telescope that famously relayed signals from the 1969 moon landing. Less well known was the mystery that astronomers on site had been dealing with for 17 long years. You see, every so often, the telescope would receive mysterious signals. But no one could figure out what was causing them.
The telescope was detecting something called perytons. These are incredible short burst radio signals of a terrestrial origin. They also share a name with a mythical beast in a nod to how mysterious they were. The physicists on site thought they might be caused by lightning strikes somewhere near the telescope. But that was not the case.
As it happens, some of the scientists on site would put in full work days and that meant they’d need to have a meal now and then. So they’d use the microwave to heat it up. The signals being received were coming in at 2.4GHz, the same frequency as a microwave.
Someone put two and two together and discovered that, if you pull the microwave door open before the cooking cycle completes, for a second it will release those perytons. So for 17 years, they were haunted by people reheating their lunch.
8. NASA’s Multi-Million Dollar Mars Probe
Did you ever get frustrated in a math class at school and wonder when you were ever going to need to know something like trigonometry or integers in real life? Maybe you never did need to know any of that, but some people do, in particular the kind of people who work at NASA calculating thrust on satellites.
In 1999, NASA was hoping the Mars Climate Orbiter would be able to provide useful scientific data about weather patterns on Mars. Instead, it was destroyed shortly after entering the atmosphere.
NASA launched an internal investigation to figure out what happened. A $125 million piece of hardware never even got to see service at all, so after all that money and months of preparation, something big had to have gone wrong. The truth, however, was something small. A simple mathematical conversion. Someone had forgotten to translate the math, controlling the thrusters of the orbiter. The software calculated the force of the thrusters in pounds of force. But some of the other software being used calculated it in newtons.
Along the way, scientists realized something was wonky because they had to keep making adjustments. But by the time it arrived, it was too late. It hit the atmosphere at the wrong angle and quickly burned up on entry. Had someone double checked that the metric conversions, it all could have been avoided.
7. The Folded Structure of an AIDS-Related Enzyme
For some of us, it can be hard on the ego when we’re very knowledgeable on a subject and are having difficulty figuring a related problem out, only to have a random person with no special insight stumble on the solution as if by magic. That’s sort of what happened when AIDS researchers got stuck trying to identify the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme.
For years, they’d been working at figuring out the structure with no luck. So they opted for a novel solution: let someone else figure it out. In this case, they used a puzzle game called Foldit. The game allows users to play with the structures of proteins and enzymes to find the most optimal ways they can be folded.
Researchers had been trying to crack this particular enzyme for 13 years. Once they placed it in the game to let the gamer community try it out, users found the solution in just three weeks. The end result was not a cure for AIDS, by any means, but it was an important step towards understanding and treating conditions like AIDS.
6. Why Flamingoes Stand on One Foot
Picture a flamingo in your head. Is it standing on one foot? That’s the common image we have of these exotic pink birds, perched on one long, thin leg. And for a long while, no one knew exactly why a flamingo chose to stand like that. It wasn’t until 2019 that science gave us an answer: it’s literally easier than standing on two legs.
Flamingoes cannot balance or rest as easily on two legs, it throws their balance right off. Their bodies are designed to handle that single leg much better. Experiments with dead flamingoes further proved that it’s much harder to balance one on two legs, but on one leg they stand up surprisingly easily.
5. The Mystery of the Bermuda Triangle
According to Karl Kruszelnicki, the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle is that we ever thought it was a mystery at all. The region is known for bad weather and that, combined with human error plus heavy traffic increasing the chance for more accidents, explains everything. No curses, no aliens, no mystery phenomena at all.
Based on his research, he points out that, on a percentage basis, ships don’t go missing there any more than they do anywhere else in the ocean. It’s just that the high traffic numbers make it seem worse.
The name “Bermuda Triangle” was even in common usage until 1964 and if there is any mystery, it’s mostly just related to how many ships may have gone missing in that area, since true numbers are hard to come by.
4. Why Wombats Have Square Poop
We’re taking a deep dive into science for this one and looking into one of the greatest mysteries of modern biology and zoology. Namely, why does the humble wombat produce poop in cubes when no other animal on earth is able to do so?
In weirdly practical terms, wombats poop strategically to communicate messages to other wombats. What kind of messages? Probably about territory, so other wombats know where they are. And the reason it’s in a cube is, potentially, to prevent it from rolling away. And while that is a great answer for why the wombat has poop cubes, it does nothing to answer how. Because if you wanted to poop a cube to mark your own territory, it’s not like you could just will it to be so. So what’s going on in a wombat’s butt?
Things get a little grisly here and involve wombat dissection. A wombat that had died in an accident was examined and scientists discovered that the intestines of the animal features a pair of grooves that are more elastic than the rest of the intestine. A 2D rendering was made, showing that the intestines have varied layers of thickness and stiffness. As muscles contract over several days to pull out all possible moisture and nutrients from the food being digested, the intestines form those odd like cubes and shoot them out the backdoor when it’s done.
3. The Mysterious Antarctic Bio-Duck Sound
For 50 years, researchers in the Antarctic have made note of a strange sound that is, for all intents and purposes, like the quack of a duck. But it’s underwater. It was first recorded by submarine crews and because it was repeated so often, the original thinking was that it had to be a man-made sound. Later, someone suggested fish, but the sound was too loud for any known fish.
As luck would have it, someone studying minke whales had affixed a pair of them with trackers that also had microphones. When researchers listened to what they recorded, they had front row seats to the mysterious duck sound. Combined with years’ worth of previous recordings, they were able to conclusively determine that it had just been minke whales the whole time. Of course, none of that explained why the whales do it, but at least we know it’s them.
2. How to Break Dry Spaghetti into Just Two Pieces
Let’s say you’re in the mood for some spaghetti, but you only have one rather small pot in which to cook it. The whole noodles are much too long to fit, so you’re going to have to break the spaghetti in two. But can you break spaghetti in two? As in perfectly in two with no extra broken pieces flying around? If you have ever broken a handful of spaghetti in half before, you already know the answer. Of course not. When you break spaghetti, it shatters like your dreams of not having to pick up tiny, broken pasta pieces from the stovetop.
Busted spaghetti was the fate of every spaghetti chef in the world until MIT scientists got involved. It turns out there is a scientific way to break spaghetti into just two pieces; no broken bits.
Elongated, brittle objects almost always break into multiple pieces, pasta or otherwise. This happens when you apply pressure from either end, causing a bend in the center. This bend eventually breaks, which causes a snap-back reaction that vibrates the pasta and breaks off more pieces.
Researchers were able to determine that if the spaghetti is twisted to 270 degrees and then carefully bent at 3 millimeters per second, it will snap perfectly in two.
1. Why You Keep Losing Socks
How many socks would you say you’ve lost in your lifetime? This has been a recurring issue for many of us. Socks go to the laundry but never make it back to the drawer. The result is a handful of stray, unmatched socks that we have at the bottom of the drawer. And it’s a goofy problem that people laugh about because it’s not really a big deal. But why does it happen? Someone has tried to solve the mystery, and it’s far less mysterious than the internet might make it out to be.
Samsung commissioned a statistician and a psychologist to figure this sock mystery out and it seems like the average person loses 15 socks per year, which seems oddly high, but who are we to argue with Samsung science?
The two experts put their heads together and came up with a slew of reasons for the mystery sock migration that so many of us endure. Turns out, you lost them.
Sounds pretty simple, right? They may have fallen under the washer, or maybe behind a radiator. They got put in the wrong wash load; they fell off a clothesline.
Mathematician Rob Eastaway blamed Murphy’s Law and pointed out that, statistically, you just can’t have X number of socks and expect not to lose one at some point. In essence, the science boils down to the unavoidable nature of the universe itself. You lose socks because you can’t not lose socks.