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John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

9 'Scientific Mysteries' the Internet Loves, Debunked

John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Whether it involves aliens, moving rocks, or crop circles, no one loves a scientific mystery like the internet—even if that "mystery" was solved years ago using all of the rigors of science. Here are 10 so-called mysteries that the global online community can't bear to part with, debunked once and for all (we hope).

1. KUMMAKIVI BALANCING ROCK // RUOKOLAHTI, FINLAND

The "Mystery": This so-called "strange rock" is a balancing act comprised of two rocks, one teetering precipitously on top of the other. Locals of ancient yesteryear, apparently perplexed to discover that the top rock was in no danger of sliding off the bottom rock despite the extremely small point of contact between them—and was, in fact, too heavy to be moved at all—decided giants tossing boulders explained the phenomenon. "And it's true," one theorist wrote: "There is still no exact scientific explanation, but contrary to the laws of physics, the stone stands quite firmly and human strength is not enough to move it."

Science Says: It's not true, actually. Geologists put forward a much more likely cause for this balancing rock and the countless others that exist worldwide: Melting glaciers deposited them where they currently squat.

2. FAIRY CIRCLES // NAMIBIA

geographic features called fairy circles in namibia, created by termites and plants
iStock

The "Mystery": Are they footprints of the gods? Barren patches caused by a dragon's fiery breath? Marks left behind by UFOs? All of these ideas were perpetuated by the internet after tour guides in the region passed them on to tourists, according to The New York Times. The scientific community was pretty sure the dirt circles found in the Namib Desert were none of those things, even though they were hard-pressed to come up with a more logical explanation—until recently.

Science Says: Research published in 2017 suggests that they're the work of colonies of termites, which clear circular patches around their nests; the barrenness of these shapes is possibly enhanced by plants as they stretch their roots to reach scarce water—which prevents other plants from growing in the process.

3. KLERKSDORP SPHERES // OTTOSDAL, SOUTH AFRICA

klerksdorp sphere
Robert Huggett

The "Mystery": These grooved spheres have been the subject of many strange theories, most revolving around the existence of intelligent aliens who made the pod-like trinkets—which apparently can rotate on their axes—using intelligent alien technology and otherworldly metals some 3 billion years ago. Virtuescience.com has proposed a whole host of theories about the spheres' uses, including ancient ammunition, messages from space, and currency.

Science Says: Geologists have a more tempered explanation for how the spheres came to be: They're concretions—little balls of rock that have grown around a core object—of the minerals hematite, wollastonite, or pyrite that have hardened over time in nests of volcanic ash or sediment. The myth of alien metalworking skills was debunked back in 1996, but it still resurfaces every once in a while.

4. WEBDRIVER TORSO // YOUTUBE

The "Mystery": The Webdriver Torso YouTube account has been freaking out the internet with its videos for several years. Commentors posited that the videos—which were usually 11 seconds long and featured colored rectangles moving around on a white screen—were spy code, alien code, or recruitment searches for expert hackers. At the channel's peak, videos were uploaded as often as every two minutes.

Science Says: Google revealed in 2014 that they were simply video clips the company had created to test the quality of YouTube videos. "We're never gonna give you uploading that's slow or loses video quality, and we're never gonna let you down by playing YouTube in poor video quality," the company told Engadget in a statement/Rickroll. "That's why we're always running tests like Webdriver Torso." Conspiracy theorists, however, pointing out that videos had been uploaded elsewhere before Google took credit for the channel, continued to suspect darker intentions. One reddit user posited in 2015 that Google "could … have a secret agenda." Maybe Google wants this chatter to continue: Even today, googling "Webdriver Torso" will yield an easter egg.

5. SAILING STONES // DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA

Sailing stones of Death Valley National Park
Thomas Hawk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The "Mystery": Known alternately as sliding, walking, or moving rocks, for more than 100 years these so-called "living stones" have seemingly slid across the floor of a dry lake bed all on their own, leaving trails of their movements—and causing plenty of speculation. Magnetic force is one popular theory, along with psychic energy and the interventions of alien spacecraft. Some claim a 700-pound stone named Karen disappeared for two years, only to somehow reappear again.

Science Says: In 2014, scientists studied the situation and discovered that the stones move when the lake bed they rest on becomes covered with rainwater that freezes overnight into a sheet of ice; when the ice melts, it pushes the rocks here and there—assisted by Death Valley's powerful winds. (No word on what Karen's been up to, though.)

6. NAZCA LINES // NAZCA, PERU

Aerial view of a geoglyph representing a Duck or a Dinosaurius at Nazca Lines
Martin Bernetti, AFP/Getty Images

The "Mystery": If conspiracy theorists like aliens, they love ancient aliens. When it comes to the Nazca lines, they speculate that ancient astronauts from outer space drew almost 1200 geometric, animal, and plant shapes in a vast, arid plateau on Peru's Pampas de Jumana. Ranker.com also purports that the designs were made by humans, "most likely to signal extraterrestrials," and possibly to provide a runway for their space ships.

Science Says: The truth—which has been known since at least the 1940s—is that the figures were created 1500 to 2000 years ago by the Nazca people, who removed rocks and/or a portion of topsoil to create an image in negative. At first, scientists believed the figures were astronomical symbols, or an early sort of calendar, but later research indicated the drawings were used ritualistically, in ceremonies involving the quest for scarce water.

7. BERMUDA TRIANGLE // ATLANTIC OCEAN

aerial view of bermuda

Peter Burka, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The "Mystery": Three hundred ships and planes, all supposedly sunk or gone missing in the same general area in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: The Bermuda Triangle (so-named by pulp writer Vincent Gaddis in 1964) has had conspiracy theorists of all stripes spouting endless theories for years. Atlantis! Alien interventions! An opening in the fabric of the universe! Attack by sea monsters! A popular theory in the 1970s involved magnetism wreaking havoc on navigational devices, and one more recent theory suggested that bursting bubbles of methane gas were responsible for missing craft. Online speculations, like this one from BuzzFeedBlue, attempt to stoke the (nonexistent) fire.

Science Says: This has been settled for decades—there is no mystery. In 1975, librarian turned investigative author Larry Kusche unearthed the actual facts: Some "missing" vessels were simply made up; some sank far from the Triangle; and others along the route—which is still heavily trafficked today—fell prey to the region's frequent bad storms.

8. CROP CIRCLES // BRITAIN

The "Mystery": A lot of otherworldly meaning has been ascribed to these designs squished into fields of wheat, rapeseed, and barley. Once again, aliens—mathematical-genius aliens this time—are said to be responsible for them, hiding complicated messages in the circles' sometimes intricate imagery. Others suggest they're spiritual centers that beam energy. In the video above, a farmer who found an intricate crop spiral in his field says, "I don't know what caused it, but I'm not sure that it was made by people."

Science Says: The truth is simple, and perhaps disappointing, which may explain why the alien theory never seems to die: The circles are made under cover of darkness by people, sometimes with the permission of the farmers whose land they're created on. They use measuring devices, rollers, and other low-tech gear to push patterns into grain.

9. ATA THE MUMMY // ATACAMA, CHILE

The "Mystery": When a small, oddly shaped, strangely featured mummy was discovered in Chile's Atacama Desert in 2003, some on the internet called it proof that beings from space had once lived among humans—and perhaps even mated with them. The mummy had 10 ribs instead of the typical 12; a strangely sloped head; and at just 6 inches long, was fetus-sized, but its bones were as dense as a child's. Some thought that the 9 percent of the mummy's DNA that didn't match the human DNA they compared it to was further evidence of its non-human origins. As UFO/ET conspiracy theorist Steven Greer says in the above clip, "Is that all computer read error? Maybe. Is it what's called DNA junk? Perhaps. We don't know."

Science Says: Testing of Ata's genome destroyed these theories, proving that Ata was 100 percent human and died, likely in utero, from genetic defects. Many of these mutations related to bone development, explaining her missing ribs and thick bones. Exposure to nitrate-contaminated drinking water may have been a factor in her deformations as well. And that 9 percent genetic difference? Standard contamination of a mummy that was exposed to the open air.

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Women Suffer Worse Migraines Than Men. Now Scientists Think They Know Why
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iStock

Migraines are one of medicine's most frustrating mysteries, both causes and treatments. Now researchers believe they've solved one part of the puzzle: a protein affected by fluctuating estrogen levels may explain why more women suffer from migraines than men.

Migraines are the third most common illness in the world, affecting more than 1 in 10 people. Some 75 percent of sufferers are women, who also experience them more frequently and more intensely, and don't respond as well to drug treatments as men do.

At this year's Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, researcher Emily Galloway presented new findings on the connection between the protein NHE1 and the development of migraine headaches. NHE1 regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, including the membranes that separate incoming blood flow from the brain.

When NHE1 levels are low or the molecule isn't working as it's supposed to, migraine-level head pain can ensue. And because irregular NHE1 disrupts the flow of protons and sodium ions to the brain, medications like pain killers have trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier as well. This may explain why the condition is so hard to treat.

When the researchers analyzed NHE1 levels in the brains of male and female lab rats, the researchers found them to be four times higher in the males than in the females. Additionally, when estrogen levels were highest in the female specimens, NHE1 levels in the blood vessels of their brains were at their lowest.

Previous research had implicated fluctuating estrogen levels in migraines, but the mechanism behind it has remained elusive. The new finding could change the way migraines are studied and treated in the future, which is especially important considering that most migraine studies have focused on male animal subjects.

"Conducting research on the molecular mechanisms behind migraine is the first step in creating more targeted drugs to treat this condition, for men and women," Galloway said in a press statement. "Knowledge gained from this work could lead to relief for millions of those who suffer from migraines and identify individuals who may have better responses to specific therapies."

The new research is part of a broader effort to build a molecular map of the relationship between sex hormones and NHE1 expression. The next step is testing drugs that regulate these hormones to see how they affect NHE1 levels in the brain.

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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