In 1966 hilarious prankster and Nobel Prize-winning
physicist Richard Feynman spoke to the National Science Teachers Association. The topic: What
is Science? Feynman, a famously out-of-the-box thinker, didn’t give a definition — he described
a process. He told attendees how he learned to do science, giving a detailed overview
of formative experiences and underscoring their intellectual value. One of the patterns
that emerged is that a mystery can be more valuable than the solution. When introduced to the mathematical concept
pi, Feynman couldn’t comprehend it. “But this was a great thing,” he said, “and the result
[was] that I looked for pi everywhere.” When trying to determine why birds pecked at their
feathers, he guessed wrongly, but his father revealed the true answer, and Feynman learned
something new. And so “the point of this is that the result of observation, even if I
were unable to come to the ultimate conclusion, was a wonderful piece of gold, with marvelous
results.” With that in mind, watch this video with an
invisible asterisk, partly because scientists may solve some or all of these mysteries one
day — maybe today! But more importantly because failing to solve these mysteries is
a journey of discovery in itself. 1.
DOES THE GREAT PYRAMID VOID CONTAIN AN IRON THRONE?
Iron thrones might be a painful subject for Game of Thrones fans who wanted to dracarys
all over the final season. But this isn’t about that show. It’s about the disagreements
and intrigue surrounding a world of mythical creatures and monarchs. That world, of course,
is ancient Egypt. Where does the iron throne fit in? It might sit inside what archaeologist
Yukinori Kawae called “the discovery of the century.” Hidden within Giza’s Great Pyramid
is what seems to be an enormous void — potentially a chamber — that’s at least 100 feet long
and situated over a long conduit called the Grand Gallery that leads to the burial chamber
of the pharaoh Khufu. Scientists detected the void in 2017 using muon radiography, which
tracks the motion of subatomic particles called muons.
Archaeoastronomy professor Giulio Magli told Newsweek that the void may contain an iron
throne mentioned in the ancient Pyramid Texts. Sitting in it supposedly opened the gates
to the afterlife. However, skeptical Egyptologists have argued that the “void” is likely a construction
gap believed to be typical of pyramids. And Egyptologist David Lightbody claimed that
scientists may have detected two smaller gaps that create a muon-driven illusion of vaster
emptiness. Robot-mounted cameras may resolve the matter, but as Live Science described,
that would entail drilling holes in the pyramid, and researchers would need permission from
the Egyptian government. 2.
WHAT’S UP WITH MARTIAN BLUEBERRIES? Is there life on Mars? Not even the great
David Bowie could answer that question, so good luck, scientists. And if they are lucky,
the solution to a different Martian mystery may shed some light. As Space.com detailed,
in 2004, NASA’s Opportunity rover encountered “a geological curiosity” on Mars: “tiny, iron-rich
spheres” near its landing spot. Scientists called them blueberries (and hopefully formed
a heavy metal band called “Iron Blueberry”). Researchers theorized that these foreign orbs
were accretions of hematite (iron oxide) — in other words, they thought hematite gradually
accumulated as water passed through rocks. Indeed, the Red Planet was once a wet planet,
but Gizmodo noted that multiple space-ologists have rejected the accretion theory because
the blueberries’ don’t resemble the kinds of accretions seen on Earth. Whereas Earthly
accretions have irregular shapes and sizes, Martian blueberries are “nearly perfectly
spherical,” extremely similar in size, and way smaller than Earth’s accretions.
Researchers in Japan hypothesized that the blueberries formed as acidic water washed
over calcite formations, with hematite collecting around the calcite. But this also assumes
— perhaps wrongly — that Martian blueberries are comparable to geological formations on
Earth. If the assumption proves true, then determining the water’s chemistry via the
blueberries could yield clues about Mars’ habitability. But testing that notion might
require returning to the original blueberry site, which seems unlikely. 3.
WHY DO SOME ANIMALS HAVE SELF-DESTRUCTIVE MATING BEHAVIORS?
As Nazareth would say, “Love hurts, love scars, love wounds,” and for some animals those wounds
are fatal. Such animals are “semelparous,” meaning they die after a single bout of baby-making.
Take, for example, the antechinus (above), an adorable mouse-like marsupial that lives
in Australia. When a male antechinus gets naughty in the Land Down Under, he gets naughty
for up to 14 hours, per National Geographic. As he maniacally thrusts away, his fur falls
off, his innards bleed, and he gets gangrene. Even the flesh berries attached to his love
twig disintegrate. Scientists have spent decades trying to understand
this behavior. Competing theories include that males are sacrificing themselves to leave
resources for future generations; that there’s not much time to reproduce, so they strategically
screw themselves over competing; and that evolution is just weird sometimes. You might
think such self-destructive behavior is a product of living in the animal-themed Saw
movie that is Australia, but octopuses — which live all over the world — also die awful
deaths after reproducing. Chicago Medicine explained that female octopuses
often eat their male partners, who would soon die even without the Dahmer-esque pillow talk.
After laying eggs the females starve themselves to death. Occasionally, captive females rip
off their own skin and eat the tips of their tentacles. Experts speculate that it could
be evolution’s way of keeping mothers from eating their young, but maybe all female octopuses
are Australian. 4.
HOW ON EARTH DID A BABY VOLCANO CAUSE A GLOBAL ‘SEISMIC HUM’?
Oftentimes, when a seismograph’s a-knockin, then the Earth is a-rockin,’ and people are
a panickin.’ But in November 2018 a seismic hum rumbled across the world and almost nobody
batted an eye. As National Geographic described, these weird seismic waves persisted for over
20 minutes and spanned almost 11,000 miles, but the frequency was too low for humans to
notice on their own. Geologists caught wind of it and were blown away by what they eventually
uncovered. That seismic hum coincided with another geological
oddity. This time people did panic, specifically the people living on the French island of
Mayotte. Since May 2018 they’ve felt more than 1,800 small earthquakes. And as it turns
out, the November hum originated near Mayotte. Based on preliminary research, these two sets
of events seem to be connected through a third strange occurrence: the birth of the largest
underwater volcano ever recorded. Seismologist Stephen Hicks explained, “the million-dollar
question” is, how are these three phenomena related? And that’s not the only question.
Volcanologist Ken Rubin told Live Science that it’s odd that a volcano even formed near
Mayotte, which is the oldest island of an archipelago that hasn’t seen volcanic activity
in thousands of years. Researchers also aren’t sure if Earth grew a brand new lava fountain
or if it formed atop an older volcano. 5.
WHERE ON NOT-EARTH IS PLANET NINE? Fans of the animated series Where on Earth
is Carmen Sandiego? (or the related game/game show) probably learned that you can locate
a super-elusive target by following the available clues. It might take a few thousand geography
lessons, but in the end you’ll find the target wherever the evidence said it is. However,
Planet Nine doesn’t play by those rules. You might be thinking, “Planet Nine — did
we get Pluto back?” No, Pluto is still reclassified as a dwarf planet. According to NASA, if there
is a ninth planet, it’s “perhaps 10 times the mass of Earth” and located in an icy region
beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt. Planetary astrophysicist Konstantin Batygin has insisted
this is a very small “if” — presumably a dwarf “if.” A whopping five lines of observational
evidence point to the existence of a ninth planet in our solar system that’s influencing
the orbits of objects in the Kuiper Belt. So if there’s no planet, there are potentially
five different mysteries to resolve. However, Occam’s Razor does not a planet make.
The observational evidence is indirect, and some astronomers have espoused the alternative
theory that a cluster of objects with the collective mass of a planet is what’s really
affecting orbits in the Kuiper Belt. But “it’s almost impossible to see the whole [cluster]
all at once.” 6.
WHAT ARE DARK ENERGY AND DARK MATTER MADE OF?
We are such stuff that dreams are made of, which might explain why we aren’t made of
dark matter and dark energy. Never in our wildest dreams would most of the universe
be made of that stuff, yet it is. We say “stuff” because we don’t know what dark energy and
dark matter actually are. Nobody does. But whatever they are completely upended physicists’
perception of the universe. 1998 was the year everything turned downside
up. Until then, experts believed “gravity was certain to slow the expansion [of the
universe] as time went on,” according to NASA. Then Hubble burst their bubble. Observations
from the space telescope revealed that the expansion of the universe was speeding up,
the exact opposite of what physicists predicted. All sorts of educated straw-grasping followed.
Did Einstein get gravity wrong? Did space contain some unknown “energy-fluid?” Clearly
in the dark, scientists assigned a rather fitting name to the substance they still can’t
explain: dark energy. Then there’s dark matter, which is largely
defined by what it isn’t. It doesn’t have the properties of normal matter or antimatter
or black holes for that matter. And it’s dark — as in not visible. Roughly 68 percent
of the universe is dark energy, 27 percent is dark matter, and the last 5 percent is
normal matter — the stuff we’re made of. 7.
WHY DO MORE SPECIES LIVE NEAR THE EQUATOR? In 1807 Alexander von Humboldt — hailed
by Cosmos as “the father of environmental science” — published a book of essays wherein
he said — and we’re paraphrasing — life sucks more for organisms in “frigid zones”
than in the tropics, where wider varieties of “organic life” thrive. In the centuries
since, scientists have tried to explain this tendency, which is called the latitudinal
diversity gradient. Admittedly, any grandpa packing his bags for
Florida could have told you that warm weather beats freezing. But that grandpa probably
isn’t a polar bear, whose species evolved to thrive in icy climates. The head-scratcher
is that there are seven species of non-polar bear, three of which are found in southern
or Southeast Asia and one of which lives in South America. That’s not even the best example.
Per a 2011 Guardian article, over 3,300 bird species breed in the Neotropics versus around
730 species in the Nearctic. But why? Scientists have attacked the problem from
many different angles. A 2018 paper in Nature grouped these theories into three main categories,
which can roughly be summarized as 1) habitats closer to the equator are better suited to
sustain more species, 2) species evolve faster at the equator, or 3) colder climates haven’t
been around as long, so the creatures living in them have had less time to evolve. In short,
scientists aren’t sure. 8.
WHAT CAUSED THE SPACE ‘COW’ EXPLOSION? Have you ever wondered what sounds the intergalactic
versions of Earth’s animals would make? Maybe alien ants would sing rock covers of Queen
songs and space dogs would bark like John Candy. And space cows — they’d go boom.
At least that’s what the “Cow” did. Granted, this Cow wasn’t a cosmic bovine but a moribund
star located 200 million light-years away. Its full name, which was randomly generated,
is AT2018cow. But let’s just pretend it’s a real cow. And now let’s mourn that cow because
it exploded, flinging ground beef across the cosmos.
The explosion “shone with the light of 100 supernovas,” per Live Science, and the flash
reached Earth in 2018. From the get-go it was clear that whatever astronomers were witnessing
was “super weird.” It didn’t produce the amount of debris one would expect from a supernova,
per National Geographic, and the glow from the explosion unexpectedly brightened a week
after it first appeared. In fact, it remained bright for almost three weeks, according to
Science. Cow also emitted radiation in strange ways that implied the presence of a central
power source surrounded by “an asymmetric blob of material.” The potential explanations
for what it is each have shortcomings, but the candidates include a black hole birth
— which has never been observed before — a newborn neutron star, and an unusual supernova. 9.
HOW DID DINOSAURS MAKE LOVE? Isn’t it weird that humans call human procreation
“the birds and the bees”? It creates a confusing image of people stinging each other’s brains
out and hatching babies. The idiom would be better used on dinosaurs. Except, instead
of the birds and the bees, it could be the birds and the crocodiles.
As Smithsonian explained, dino dongs are sorely lacking in the fossil record, so scientists
have tried to piece together the ins and outs of dino reproduction by looking at animals
that are evolutionarily related. Based on bird and crocodile anatomies, paleontologists
have inferred that dinosaurs had a fancy orifice called a cloaca. But not all cloacas are created
equal. For example, across most bird species the males don’t have peckers, but ducks have
long, ridiculous-looking ones. A 2006 estimate suggests that more than 1,850
dinosaur species once roamed the Earth, so exploring all the possible variations in carnal
hardware sounds like an exercise in futility. Experts don’t even completely agree on how
to distinguish male and female dino bones. Moreover, NPR pointed out that the sharp spikes,
large tails, and massive bodies of some species would have made mating complicated. We can
only hope that T. rex exchanged tiny-armed caresses while a saxophone-toting velociraptor
played a sensual rendition of the Jurassic Park theme. 10.
WHAT HAPPENS TO MATTER INSIDE A BLACK HOLE? In 2019, the worlds of fantasy and science
collided in visually stunning fashion when astronomers published the first ever image
of a black hole. Jessica Dempsey, who co-discovered the hole, noted its striking resemblance to
the Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings series. Before long Twitter was aflutter and
humanity finally realized how precious yet sinister black holes are. It’s fitting that
these cosmic oddities would look like a supernatural eye because their inner workings sound a lot
like arcane sorcery. Black holes are the endlessly dark, “infinitely
dense” remnants of collapsed stars. They possess such an intense gravitational pull that nothing
— not even light — can escape once it enters. But what happens to the matter trapped
inside? What would happen to you if you entered a black hole? Besides becoming the apple of
Sauron’s eye, no one can say for sure. What we can say is that objects caught in a black
hole get condensed to an “infinitely small point” known as a “singularity,” at which
point the laws of physics “break down and we don’t really know what happens.” One theory
holds that black holes spit matter across space at some point “in the future,” but a
pair of papers published in 2018 acknowledged that physicists may have “completely misunderstood”
black holes. 11.
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE EXPERIENCE PHANTOM LIMB PAIN?
Thanks to George Lucas and George R. R. Martin, many people associate amputations with one-handed
sister-kissers like Luke Skywalker and Jaime Lannister. Of course, after Luke lost his
lightsaber hand, he got a nifty mechanical replacement and called it an episode. And
Jaime — ew, just ew. Anyway, back to Luke, who really got lucky because his severed hand
could have easily become a phantom menace, causing pain that seemed to emanate from where
his real hand used to be. Even luckier, he’s a fictional character.
Sadly, phantom pain isn’t fiction. It’s very real, sometimes agonizing pain that affects
very real people. It can strike days or months after an amputation, manifesting as a stabbing,
shooting, burning, or even crushing sensation. This differs from phantom limb sensation,
which is painless, according to the Mayo Clinic. Despite advances in research, “phantom pain
is a poorly understood phenomenon,” per Chalmers University of Technology.
Generally speaking, it seems that after losing a body part, neurons related to that part
can get rewired in adverse ways. Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan has argued that the random firing
of neurons could link the nerve cells once related to an amputated area to nerve cells
related to pain perception. Based on that premise, he has developed a so-far fruitful
way of treating some sufferers. 12.
WHEAT REALLY KILLED OFF THE DINOSAURS? To misquote Dr. Ian Malcolm, ‘Life, uh, finds
a way until it, uh, doesn’t.” And 65 million or so years ago, life lost its way for the
dinosaurs. For seemingly eons humans have racked their brains trying to discern exactly
what wiped out them out, and competing explanations have ranged from the astute to the asinine.
On the sillier end of the spectrum was the gross notion that dinosaurs died of constipation,
the reasoning being that the rise of flowering plants precipitated a shift in eating habits
and that dinos couldn’t digest flowers. Obviously, that’s nonsense because flowering plants emerged
60 million years before dinosaurs went extinct and anyway, not pooping would technically
mean going ex-stink. The most popular theory holds that a massive
asteroid rained oblivion onto our favorite future fossils. But even this theory has doubters
in the scientific community. Per National Geographic, some paleontologists are of the
mind that dinosaurs would have gone extinct even without the cataclysmic nudge of an asteroid,
with many species having vanished “tens of millions of years before” the cosmos dealt
the final death blow. But even if we stick to the asteroid explanation, the question
remains whether another catastrophe, such as gigantic volcanic eruptions, played a major
role. Research published in 2019 suggests that the asteroid impact triggered such eruptions
in India, which could have created an unlivable atmosphere.
Fossils capture the imagination, giving us a glimpse into the past. While many of the
more mysterious fossils have been explained away by now, a few remain a total enigma,
with theories ranging from giants, missing link humans, sea-floor cacti, and even fossils
from outer-space. Let’s dive into fossils that scientists just can’t explain.
ALH84001 (THE MARTIAN BACTERIAL FOSSIL). Countless science fiction stories revolve
around life on Mars, and more than a few pseudo-scientists have found “proof” of life in odd Martian
rock formations and camera glitches. But scientists take possible life on Mars seriously, and
actually might have proof in the mysterious meteorite known as ALH84001.
The little meteor fell to Earth in 1984 and seemed like an interesting, albeit normal,
meteor sample. With more study, scientists came to a shocking conclusion. The meteor
was from Mars and was 4.1 billion years old. It was blown off the planet during a collision
and traveled space since then, finally coming down to Earth. Even more shockingly, it had
what looked like features of fossilized bacteria in it. Overnight, ALH84001 became the most
famous meteor on Earth. Since then, scientists have debated the nature
of the rock. Sure, it looks like there are bacteria embedded in it, but further study
has proven inconclusive. It could just be remnants of mineral structures found on Mars
all those years ago, or a fluke of geologic formation. What makes ALH84001 so amazing
is that, even after thirty years of study, it’s still a mystery. Scientists still take
it very seriously, with groups even proposing that ALH84001 provides evidence that the Moon
and other worlds could be littered with fossils knocked away from Earth by asteroid collisions.
Possibly, the planets are constantly trading rocks through this mechanism, and maybe even
trading life as well. 13.
HOMO NALEDI. Since the discovery of early hominid fossils,
most researchers focused in small geographic areas where they felt certain they’d find
fossils of our ancestors. All that changed in 2015, when researchers in South Africa
found hominid fossils that didn’t relate to any of the known hominid fossil families.
Named Homo naledi, the fossils were from a new family of human predecessors.
Homo naledi fossils occupy a weird place in the human family tree, falling between hominids
and apes both structurally and behaviorally. This has led some researchers to propose that
they’re not truly hominids, but instead some sort of evolutionary middle child that defies
classification. Oddly, the specimen was less than 350,000 years old, meaning it lived right
before Homo sapiens appeared. Yet, their bodies are more similar to older hominid specimens.
This would be like finding out that neanderthals were still alive somewhere in our world today.
Homo naledi was that out of place. More mysteries crop up when analyzing their
behavior. All the fossils were found in a large burial hole, but it seems like the Homo
naledi might have just dumped the bodies there without any ritual.
All this adds up to a puzzling picture, especially when you consider that this species might
have survived up until the development of Homo sapiens. This means that our ancestors
probably had contact with small-brained hominids, contrary to what was previously thought, forcing
us to re-evaluate the timeline of human development. How Homo naledi developed at all, and whether
our ancestors actually interacted with them, is still a mystery. 14.
TULLY MONSTER. Discovered in 1955 by collector Francis Tully,
the first Tully Monster fossil completely defied explanation. Paleontologists eagerly
attempted to place the fossil within well-known classifications, but nobody could figure out
what the monster was actually related to. Looking at reproductions of the monster show
why it was so confusing. The main part of the creature had a body like a cuttlefish,
with vertical fins sticking off the top. It had no bones in its body, but could keep a
rigid shape like mollusks or worms do. Eye pods stuck out from the sides of the body.
Most unusually, the monster had a long, segmented proboscis with a “head” on the end. Unlike
the proboscis found on animals like butterflies, the Tully Monster’s proboscis ended in a set
of jaws with teeth. Adding it all up, the Tully Monster looked like something a child
would draw. When trying to set it into classification,
researchers were completely stumped about where it fit. They thought it might be related
to a worm, mollusk, arthropod, or a conodont. Unfortunately, all those classifications are
unrelated to each other. Finally, some samples showed up with a rudimentary spinal cord,
letting researchers know that they could at least classify it as an early vertebrate.
Aside from that, the Tully Monster still remains a baffling evolutionary turn in our planet’s
history. Researchers are still trying to decide how it evolved and what place it held in the
prehistoric ecosystem. 15.
THE DINOSAUR FOSSILS FOUND IN THE FROZEN ARCTIC. When we imagine dinosaurs, we usually picture
them in warm, tropical climates, or in the warm oceans. Since most dinosaur fossils are
discovered in these types of climates, that image makes sense. But recently, scientists
have discovered a new species of dinosaur living in the most unlikely of places: Arctic
Alaska. The new dinosaurs have the fun name Ugrunaaluk
kuukpikensis, and lived 70 million years ago in the frozen North. The discovery of these
duck-billed dinosaurs have created countless questions, forcing paleontologists to completely
rethink what they believe about dinosaurs. Since these giant lizards lived in polar climates,
they must have created their own heat, totally changing the idea that dinosaurs were only
cold-blooded creatures. Most likely, their blood systems were much more diverse than
original thought. But the biggest mystery is how these frigid
dinosaurs made it up there in the first place, so far removed from the biggest populations
of their scaly cousins. Something had to get them up there, and scientists are hard-pressed
to figure out what made them migrate North. Whatever the case, these dinosaurs lived a
rough life, combating months of snow and darkness since they lived in the Arctic year-round.
With the mystery of their migration, blood chemistry, and the other gnawing question
of what exactly they ate in the frozen tundra, Alaska is rapidly becoming the last frontier
of paleontology, one of the last places where mysteries about these scaly creatures still
KLERKSDORP SPHERES. The Klerksdorp Spheres were first discovered
in Ottosdal, South Africa, during mineral deposit excavations. The spheres became an
intense curiosity among the miners and geologists as more cropped up during the dig. As the
name suggests, they’re spherical in shape and made out of an extremely hard mixture
of metals. Most of the spheres have a groove running
around their equator. These spheres’ grooves date back to 3 million BC, which quickly led
to conspiracy theories about ancient aliens or highly advanced prehistoric civilizations.
The spheres just seemed too perfect for any natural process. Ancient astronaut theorists
quickly latched on to the story and speculated that these were out-of-place artifacts left
by aliens. Of course, party-pooper geologists were quick
to shoot down the idea. They pointed out that the fossils could have occurred due to natural,
volcanic activity. Certain types of volcanic metals are apt to form spherical shapes, and
weather could have created the equatorial groves. Geologists point out that spherical
rocks are not uncommon, but conspiracy theorists hold onto the idea that the spheres are part
of the fossil record of ancient alien contact with the Earth.
Honestly, neither group has an airtight theory about the spheres’ origin. Geologists have
remained skeptical, but have not yet come up with a solid explanation, and ancient alien
conspiracists still cannot explain why aliens would come down to Earth just to litter metal
spheres all over South Africa. That’s an awful long route to travel just to relieve boredom. 17.
GODZILLUS. Amateur paleontologists are often the ones
digging up mysterious and surprising fossils. Recently, Ron Fine and his team found an incredibly
unusual fossil just outside of Covington, Kentucky. Finding various chunks with plant-like
patterns during a dig, Fine realized that they had discovered a broken-up fossil. After
excavating the chunks, they reassembled the fossil to reveal its mysterious form. Oblong
in shape, the fossil was gigantic, coming in around seven feet long and consisting of
multiple lobes organized in an elliptical shape.
Further research dated the fossil to 450 million years ago, a time when life on Earth thrived
in the water. Fine’s dig site was underwater during that time, so the team assumed they
had found some sort of strange sea monster. The fossil structure was unlike anything paleontologists
had seen before. It consists of layers and oblong surfaces, much like a flattened cactus.
Fine believes that creature stood up to 9 feet tall (which explains why he and his team
named their find Godzillus), and had arms or branches radiating from the side.
Oddly, nobody knows if Godzillus was a plant or an animal. Fine’s team theorized that it
was a soft-bodied animal, which means 450 million years ago, there were 9-foot-long,
slug-like giants wandering our ocean. Others believe it is merely a mat of algae, which
sounds far more plausible, but also way less fun. 18.
HOMO FLORESIENSIS. Discovering new ancestors of modern humans
is always fascinating, but sometimes completely baffling. When an Australian-Indonesian team
discovered the fossils of a small hominid in 2003, they realized they would open new
mysteries and questions about the human family. Indeed, their discovery, named Homo floresiensis,
has forced researchers to rethink the human family history and the place of modern humans
in it. The hominid was diminutive, with samples averaging
only a little over 3 feet tall, with big feet. Researchers began calling them Hobbits, which
caused the Tolkien estate to threaten legal proceedings. Still, the nickname persisted,
because what else are you going to call them? So far, Homo floresiensis has only been found
on one island in Indonesia, and records indicate they lived a mere 50,000 years ago. Since
the Hobbits are so close in timeline to our own species, researchers are utterly baffled
by them. Some contend that it’s a totally separate species from humans, meaning Homo
sapiens were not the only hominid species inhabiting the planet back in ancient times.
This completely flies in the face of the old consensus Homo sapiens they were the only
hominid species remaining when they took over the world. Others believe that the Hobbits
were actually Homo sapiens who settled on Indonesia and, over centuries of inbreeding,
developed dwarfism. Oddly, it seems like the second option has captured more steam among
researchers, though if anybody digs up a shiny gold ring and dubs it their precious, all
bets are off. 19.
CHANDRA WICKRAMASINGHE’S METEORITE FOSSILS. Fossils don’t just come from underground — now
they can come from outer space! On December 29, 2012, a meteorite allegedly fell in Sri
Lanka. We say “allegedly” because the International Meteorite Society did not record the impact,
yet fringe scientists began studying the meteorite sample anyway, which was in good shape once
recovered. While studying the dusty space rock, Chandra Wickramasinghe made a startling
discovery: the meteorite had signs of fossilized life.
Wickramasinghe and his team published a paper outlining their discovery of diatom in the
sample. These are microscopic phytoplankton that scientists use to monitor environmental
conditions from the past. Diatoms preserve extraordinarily well in even the most extreme
conditions. Wickramasinghe supposedly found multiple samples in the meteorite, which were
in turn studied by diatom expert Patrick Kociolek, who verified that the microscopic creatures
were diatoms, but noted that they shared similar evolutionary traits to diatoms on Earth. That
means either the rock wasn’t a meteorite, or life out in space took a similar evolutionary
route to life on Earth. Other scientists threw out the claim, believing
that lightning actually formed the rock. Another hypothesis came forward that the rock was
from both space and Earth, having been blasted into orbit during a bombardment event in the
remote past. Among mainstream astrobiologists, Wickramasinghe’s results are not taken seriously,
but nobody has proven a better idea, so for now, consider him we shall. 20.
CONRAD’S SKULL. Around 360 million years ago, Earth entered
the Carboniferous Era, when carbon and swamps covered large parts of the land. Generally,
life was becoming more modern during that era, with large plant populations and fish
with the same characteristics as their modern brethren. However, no hominid samples have
been traced back to that era, except for one mysterious skull found by Ed Conrad.
Conrad discovered the skull in 1981 in Pennsylvania. The skull was in an area of prehistoric coal,
indicative of the Carboniferous Era. Conrad, and others, believe the skull had the same
normal features of a human skull, but with one major complication: there was no evidence
that hominids existed in the Carboniferous Era, hundreds of millions of years before
the first known hominids appeared, roughly 4.5 million years back.
After doing more research on the skull, Conrad was sure that it was human and came from the
Carboniferous Era, and dated it as roughly 280 million years old, but mainstream science
did not support his claim, citing the whole “no humanoids back then” factoid most people
just accept by now. In 2011, however, a study from Taiwan concluded that Conrad’s fossil
was, in fact, a human skull. Oddly enough, the story was picked up by creationists to
show that Darwin was wrong when dating human life, though they seem unwilling to admit
that this also means that a Biblical interpretation of the origins of life (that the world and
everything in it is only 6000 years old) is also false. 21.
THE NAMPA STONE DOLL. Most people don’t think of Idaho as a hotspot
for archaeological mysteries, but it’s actually the home of a mysterious figure that remains
unexplained. The figure was dug up in 1889 when workers were digging a well in Nampa,
right outside Boise. Resembling a human doll but made of stone and clay, the figure was
buried 320 feet below the surface of the Earth. Finding a stone doll is weird enough — finding
it that deep is a spine-tingling mystery. The rock around the doll dated to 2 million
years ago, far before any hominid made it to Idaho. This was also millions of years
before Homo sapiens or comparable species walked the Earth, period. Paleontologists
believe only Homo sapiens have the ability for this sort of workmanship, but they only
appeared 200,000 years ago. Here is a stone doll that was at least a million and a half
years older, with ornate designs that were clearly carved by hand. The right arm is even
cemented to the doll, showing clear signs of artistic workmanship. This was certainly
created by ancient humans that should not have existed at the time.
So, how did it get in the rock? Of course, skeptics have proposed a variety of mechanisms,
including that it’s fake. If it is evidence of ancient humans in Idaho, it would completely
rewrite the evolutionary timeline of humanity, showing that Homo sapiens — or a currently-unknown,
comparable species — existed way before we expected it. (It could also just be a fake.) 22.
UC RIVERSIDE’S MYSTERIOUS CIRCLES. In 1986, scientists at the University of California-Riverside
found a mysterious rock in Wisconsin, dated to back when the state was covered in water.
The rock had mysterious circles on it, raised above the surface and perfectly circular.
Scientists studied the weird rock for awhile and then, stumped, filed it away as an unsolved
mystery. Jump forward to 2015, and the fossil was still
a mystery. Nobody could explain what could make perfect circles in the sea bed 450 million
years ago. At a complete loss of ideas, UC Riverside scientists did what scientists rarely
do: they opened it up to the internet and asked Reddit users to propose theories. Ideas
ranged from sarcastic (typical for Reddit) to shockingly well-thought out. Some theorized
that these were the work of prehistoric snails. Others though that jellyfish or sea sponges
could have caused the shape. Overall, while the social media involvement was a success
in brainstorming possible angles, none of the theories perfectly fit. All we know is
what we already knew: 450 million years ago, something was making perfect circles on the
seafloor in Wisconsin. 23.
THE NEVADA GIANTS. The Paiute Indians in Nevada tell stories
of the Si-Te-Cah, a race of red-haired giants that had lived in Nevada for thousands of
years before the Paiute settled the land. Other Indian tribes throughout the United
States tell a similar story. According to the Paiute, the tribes unified to defeat the
giants and finally kicked them out of their homeland after a protracted war.
Settlers to the West did not originally believe the Indians, dismissing the legends as pointless
stories. That changed in 1911 when miners discovered Lovelock Cave while trying to harvest
bat guano for fertilizer. The cave was huge, and the miners could see that it was previously
inhabited. When they began digging, they discovered hundreds of ancient artifacts, along with
huge bones that looked human, but that had to come from people nearly ten feet tall.
The site garnered intense interest, and soon amateur archaeologists and paleontologists
swarmed the area, discovering more huge bones that seemingly came from giants. Digging also
revealed fossilized handprints that were much bigger than any human handprint.
The most interesting find, however, was the skulls. Each skull found had an oddly shaped
jaw bone, and elongated features. Besides being bigger than a human skull, the features
all point to a strange new species that existed in the Lovelock caves. The skulls are now
held at a nearby museum, providing evidence that the Native American legend might be real.
If so, that means at some point in the distant American past, there was an epic battle between
Native Americans and giants. 24.
END-PERMIAN MASS EXTINCTION FOSSILS. Everyone knows that the dinosaurs died out
from a giant asteroid collision, but few people know that the dinosaur extinction was not
the only — or even the worst — mass extinction that our planet faced. There have been five,
with the largest being the end-Permian event, which happened 252 million years ago. It is
also the most mysterious. Fossil records show that 95 percent of all marine species
and 75 percent of all terrestrial species went extinct during the event. The biodiversity
loss was catastrophic, and it took millions of years to get back to pre-extinction levels.
But here’s the weirdest part: Nobody knows why it happened. You’d think that such a traumatic
event in the Earth’s history would leave pretty definitive clues about what caused it, but
that’s not the case. For years, scientists have struggled to figure out why so many species
died, seemingly out of nowhere. One leading theory is that intense global warming caused
the extinction, leading to wide-scale ocean acidification that was absolutely deadly to
marine life. But other theories are much more exciting.
Geologist Gregory Retallack has discovered microscopic fractures in quartz crystals that
date from the time of the extinction, implying that some sort of massive force shook the
Earth. According to Retallack, it could have been an asteroid collision, just like with
the dinosaurs. An even more exotic theory held by many scientists is that coal in Canada
and basalt in Siberia might have blown up out of nowhere, causing a huge ash cloud and
making almost all life on Earth go extinct. 25.
THE ATACAMA ‘ALIEN’. There’s no denying this one’s weird enough
to make the most determined alien denier stop and rethink their position. According to the
Smithsonian, a 6-inch-long skeleton was discovered in a Chilean ghost town in 2003. (Found in
the Atacama Desert, the mummy has been nicknamed Ata.) Despite looking vaguely human, there
are other oddities. (Besides, of course, the size.) There’s the pointed skull, the giant
eye sockets, and two missing ribs. Surely, that’s all the proof you need that aliens
are real, right? The tiny mummy provided some serious fuel for believers, but in 2018, scientists
revealed part of the puzzle. The mummy’s DNA confirmed she is very human,
and she’s even a local. But researchers from Stanford University kept digging, and got
more questions than answers. Initially thought to be ancient, scientists eventually determined
the remains were only around 40 years old. They also found that while you’d think her size
could be explained by simply stating she was born prematurely, her bone structure was as
developed as that of a 6-year-old. She also had a shocking number of genetic
mutations, a list that included variants linked to things like dwarfism and scoliosis. But
the list also contained mutations that scientists were confused by — in all, 54 rare mutations
that possibly describe diseases and conditions modern science has never seen and can’t explain.
So Ata isn’t an alien, but it might be less weird if she were.