My favourite science mysteries
Recently, I got very addicted about the Subreddit r/UnsolvedMysteries. Then, after a few sleepless nights, I started listening to the Audiobook “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense”. I have to admit that I was equally fascinated. The audiobook is focusing on various scientific mysteries, such as the drifting Pioneer satellites or even the concept of free will. And now I’m sitting in front of my computer, writing a blog article, and wonder how I transitioned from unsolved murder mysteries to question our concepts of reality. If you would also like to have this pleasure, please have a look at my favourite science mysteries, and some interesting alternate concepts they might contain.
Mimivirus shows many characteristics which place it at the boundary between living and non-living. [...] Because its lineage is ancient and could have emerged prior to cellular organisms, Mimivirus has added to the debate over the origins of life. Some genes that code for characteristics unique to Mimivirus, including those coding for the capsid, have been conserved in a variety of viruses which infect organisms from all domains. This has been used to suggest that Mimivirus is related to a type of DNA virus that emerged before cellular organisms and played a key role in the development of all life on Earth. An alternative hypothesis is that there were three distinct types of DNA viruses that were involved in generating the three known domains of life—eucarya, archaea, and bacteria. Some suggest that Mimivirus and similar kinds are remnants of a “fourth domain” of life, and that other giant virus may represent other ancient domains.
Copied from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimivirus
To date, Neptune is the eight and most distant planet in our solar system. However, observations of our solar systems show that there might be another planet out there, and no, it’s not Pluto. Our solar system has some “weird” orbital clustering that are hard to explain without the existence of another planet. Similarly, some objects close to Neptune point into directions that make little sense without having another massive gravitational force. Many things would make more sense if there was another planet at the edge of our solar system. This hypothesized planet would have around 5-10 times the mass of earth and up to 800 times as far away from the sun as the earth. The issue is that non-shiny objects in that distance are hard to observe. Some observatories already searched for this planet but did not cover the whole region. The search is still ongoing. And in case the planet does not exist, scientists already have a list of alternative theories that could explain all the observed “anomalies”. Read more on Wikipedia.
SEM picture of tardigrade "Milnesium tardigradum". Picture taken from: Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) - Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) Comparative proteome analysis of Milnesium tardigradum in early embryonic state versus adults in active and anhydrobiotic state. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45682. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045682
What are tardigrades?
Ever heard of tardigrades? Their colloquial name is water bears, they roam around on eight legs and are about 0.5 mm long when fully grown. If you have a tardigrade problem in your household (which I don’t think is a real issue), then you would have some serious problems, because those little critters are hard to kill. That also explains why they can be found all over the planet. They have been located in mud volcanoes, in the Antarctic, in the deep sea and were even shown to survive outer space. They seem to be resistant against starvation, extreme pressure, dehydration or air deprivation. Just imagine being bitten by a mutated tardigrade. You might turn into a superhero that can only walk very slow pace, but you might be invincible to all weapons known to humanity. The taxonomic classification of tardigrades is a difficult one to make and even stranger, up to 17.5 % of their DNA is made out of foreign DNA from bacteria, fungi and archaea. How did they do it? Nobody knows for sure. Reason enough to create some fun ideas about their origin. Some people believe that tardigrades originate from outer space and arrived on Earth through meteor impacts. Of course there are less exciting theories out there which might also sound more reasoonable, however, also less boring.
The falling tree that no one can hear
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. If you’re a quantum physicist, then the answer is no. Now I have to admit that my understanding of quantum physics is very limited. But I understand that when working with tiny objects, their behavior is not as you would expect it on the macroscopic level. That is to say, we can’t always give a definite position for such small objects, but a probability. Niels Bohr’s opinion was that physical properties like “position” don’t exist until we measure them. It gets even trickier when two different properties of the same particle are to be measured, such as velocity and position. Measuring those two properties gives you an output that can’t be explained with theories where those two properties are local and pre-existing conditions. Going from there, physicists came up with even crazier mind games. And the answers are similarly incredible. To solve those mind games, we must assume even crazier theories. For example, freedom of choice doesn’t exist, or that events happen relative to different observers. In the case of our tree in the forest: Just because one person hears the tree falling, it must not be a fact for another observer.
Picture from The Times
The Great Pyramid’s void
We all know that the Great Pyramid has many chambers and tunnels which were used as a massive burial site for powerful people. However, the Great Pyramid has another giant structure to offer. So far, this structure is just called ‘the void’, because no one knows what it was actually made for and what it might contain. This cavity is just above the King’s chamber and has a length of about 30 m. There are also no easy entrances to explore this structure. So how do we know it even exists? Thanks to muon radiography. Muons are unstable subatomic particles that are emitted from various sources in the universe and continuously travel to and through the earth. Muons are much better at penetrating objects than x-rays but are still slowed down by dense materials. Using these properties, it is possible to have a look inside the Great Pyramid or other heavily shielded objects. One theory is that the void takes off pressure from the King’s Chamber, helping in the overall stability. But what if the pyramid is actually a working antenna, and its chambers are resonating electromagnetic energy? A study found out that the structure of the Great Pyramid is very good at scattering certain wavelengths. However, it wouldn’t be signals from the universe, as it is pointing into the wrong directions. Or maybe the old Egypts had been in contact with the mole people?!