Unknown Quantities


Despite the near daily advances made in science, the knowledge we have of the way our world works is staggeringly incomplete. We have only glimmers of the whole story, and even many of those are just good guesses. It sometimes seems as though science is nothing more than an elaborate guessing game. Studies and research don’t prove anything, they merely make near approximations, hailed as the newest brick atop a foundation that will always be pretty shaky.


That’s what works, though. Imagine if every discovery in science was treated as an irrefutable truth. We’d still think the Earth was flat, that we were the center planet in the Universe and that the laws of classical physics applied to everything, even subatomic particles. We’d have to shut our eyes toward a lot of inconsistencies, but at least we would have answers; flimsy as they may be.

Thankfully, scientists are a rather unruly bunch, never pleased with the status quo and always searching for a better, more robust answer to their questions. We don’t know much about the world – that’s true – but at least we know enough to keep searching for the answers. Below you’ll find some of the oddest mysteries of science, things which don’t quite make sense, yet are fascinating enough to deserve further investigation.

Placebo/Nocebo Effects

The Latin translation of the word placebo, “I shall please,” seems more like a command than a translation. Placebos are sham medicines, but miraculously the sham has been proven to work. In a 2005 study, Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy administered morphine to subjects in massive amounts of pain. On the final day of the experiment, he replaced the morphine with a saline solution. The subjects didn’t notice a thing, even though the lack of morphine should have caused the subjects’ pain to return. Here’s the kicker: When Benedetti added naloxone, a drug that blocks the soothing effects of morphine, to the saline solution, the pain relieving effects of the placebo disappeared.

What does this mean? Well, no one really knows. It could mean that the mind can affect the body’s biochemistry, producing hormones which can mimic the effects of whatever medication it’s “emulating.” In the case of the morphine placebo, it seems that the brain was “tricked” into producing its own analgesic compounds called opioids. Naloxone blocks the effects of these natural painkillers as effectively as it blocks the effects of morphine.

Dr. Tor Wager, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, offers this explanation: “If a fire alarm goes off and you see smoke, you know something bad is going to happen and you get ready to escape. Expectations about pain and pain relief work in a similar way. Placebo treatments tap into this system and orchestrate the responses in your brain and body accordingly.” Believing that you are taking the correct medication, Wager suggests, will cause your brain to mimic the effects of that drug.


On the flip side of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect, Latin for “I shall harm.” Simply put, a patient’s own pessimistic attitude toward an inert or real drug can cause adverse consequences. For example, researchers at three medical centers studied the effects of aspirin and other blood thinners in heart patients. At two locations, patients were warned of possible gastrointestinal side effects; at the remaining location, patients did not receive this information. The patients apprised of the side effects of aspirin were three times as likely to experience gastrointestinal problems. Furthermore, although there was evidence of actual stomach damage in all three groups, only the groups who had received the warnings were likely to actually feel the pain of the ulcers. Maybe there’s some truth to the saying “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

Martian Methane

A life on Mars is not one I’d be envious of. I have enough trouble with 32 degree days; the typical temperature on Mars is a freezing -58 degrees Fahrenheit, not to mention the planet-sized dust storms and the intense radiation. However, discoveries have shown that there may actually be life on Mars. NASA has measured methane in large quantities within the Martian atmosphere, which may be a sign that biological processes occur on the planet.

Methane can be produced three different ways: chemically, through serpentinization; geologically, from volcanoes spewing gasses from the core; or biologically, as a byproduct of anaerobic bacteria during the metabolic process.

In Mars’ case, the geologic and chemical processes of methane production can be easily ruled out. If the methane was a result of geologic activity, you’d see other common gases coming out with the methane. There weren’t any. And for methane to be produced chemically, water needs to interact with hot rock in a process called serpentinization. However, Dr. Lisa Pratt of Indiana University at Bloomington states that serpentinization is unlikely. It’s rare even on Earth and tends to plug up active sites of methane.

The plumes of Martian methane measure up to 19,000 metric tons – the same amount as our Earth-based methane hotspots. We know that our planet’s methane is made by boatloads of microbes. “Microbes that produced methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide were one of the earliest forms of life on Earth,” says Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “If life ever existed on Mars, it’s reasonable to think that its metabolism might have involved making methane from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

Dark Flow


Dark matter, dark energy, dark flow – the “dark” here seems to signify that, in the case of the universe, many things are unseen and unavailable for examination. Perhaps the most disconcerting of these “dark” substances is a force called dark flow. It’s caused by a massive object just outside of our view of the visible universe, and it’s pulling entire galaxy clusters towards it at an alarming rate.

In 2008, scientists stumbled upon dark flow while studying some of the largest structures in the cosmos: galaxy clusters. These clusters are made of thousands of individual galaxies, and the movement of each cluster can be tracked by their motion through the cosmic microwave radiation (heat left over from the Big Bang). Alexander Kashlinsky and his team found that some of the clusters were moving fast – really fast. In fact, they were traveling at nearly 2 million miles per hour towards a particular patch of sky between the constellations of Centaurus and Vela.

Since no known object can explain the speed at which these objects were moving or even explain the logic for them all traveling toward the same place, scientists have decided there must be something beyond the known universe that is pulling them. According to inflation theory, the observable universe is just a small portion of the total universe. There may be other parts that we just cannot see, because light has not traveled that far yet. These regions likely don’t contain stars or galaxies, but instead massive superstructures larger than anything we can comprehend. These superstructures may be what’s tugging on the galaxy clusters.

“The structures responsible for this motion have been pushed so far away by inflation, I would guesstimate they may be hundreds of billions of light years away,” explains Kashlinsky. “Most likely to create such a coherent flow, they would have to be some very strange structures, maybe warped space-time.”

Out of Body/Near Death Experiences

When your heart stops beating, it halts the flow of blood through your body. Ten seconds after blood stops flowing to the brain, your brain activity begins to decrease and your cells begin to accrue damage. After flatlining, you are declared clinically dead. Yet surprisingly, 10 to 20 percent of people who have been officially declared dead come back to life. They are even able to describe exactly what happened to them during the time their heart was stopped. These are called out of body or near death experiences, and we have no idea how they happen.


In 2001, Dr. Pim van Lommel and his team studied 344 patients who claimed to have out of body experiences. Despite being declared clinically dead and having no brain stem activity, when they were miraculously revived they were able to recall what had happened in the room while they were dead. Van Lommel hypothesized that although there is no active neuronal activity occurring, the brain can still act like a receiver of sorts. Just as radio, television and cell phones passively receive waves of information, the theory goes, so, too, can the brain.

Other researchers have been able to simulate different types of out of body experiences. One doesn’t need to be near death to undergo an out of body experience – it can also be induced by drug use, epileptic seizures and strokes. Or it can be induced by clever researchers.

To mimic an out of body experience, researchers led by Olaf Blanke of the Ecole Polytechique Fédérale de Lausanne had subjects wear VR goggles and sit in front of a video camera. Their own images were projected onto the goggle screen. When researchers pressed a pen into the subject’s chest while simultaneously mimicking the pen movement in front of the camera, subjects reported feeling that they were several feet away from their actual location. To confirm this feeling, researchers swung a hammer near where the subjects claimed they were located and measured their stress response. Needless to say, the subjects were more than a little stressed out by the illusion.


By the time you finish reading this, the theories behind many of these phenomena will have changed. Perhaps there will be new information about the ideas I’ve discussed, or even research that rejects them completely. Either way, that’s the beauty of science. It requires a certain amount of faith to build upon an ever changing foundation of theories, and an even larger amount of faith in the scientific process to challenge them.

Lauren Admire wonders if dark flow is really caused by Space Cthulhu.

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