12 Common Things Science Still Hasn't Figured Out

Laughter: Still a scientific mystery
Laughter: Still a scientific mystery
iStock/pixelfit

We’ve learned enough about physics to send humans to the Moon. We’ve discovered that DNA carries our genetic information. Scientists have even gotten closer to solving the mystery of whether cats can behave as both solids and liquids [PDF].

But there are still some basic questions we haven’t answered, including these frustratingly persistent scientific mysteries.

1. Why We Cry

Some of us tear up watching a sad movie; sometimes, we're so happy that we burst into tears. But according to science, crying in response to intense emotions doesn’t seem to be a useful behavior, and it might not have a biological purpose.

What science does know is that not all tears are created equal. The chemical composition of the tears produced when we cry, which are called psychic tears, is slightly different from the composition of the tears that lubricate and help expel foreign bodies from the eyes. This has led some to theorize that the chemical makeup of psychic tears makes them emotionally healing. But evidence showing that the chemical differences have substantial psychological effects—let alone that such effects explain why crying evolved—is lacking.

And that’s not where the theories end. Some evolutionary psychologists think that crying may have evolved as a distress call that brings help: In a 2009 paper, one researcher suggested that tears may signal submission and helplessness by blurring vision, which prompts others to aid (or at least not harm) the crier. But other researchers have pointed out that we often cry after a stressful situation has resolved, not while it’s in progress and we need to signal for help; it’s also typical for people to avoid crying publicly and to look unfavorably on those who do. In any case, these hypotheses, like most in evolutionary psychology, are difficult to test.

2. How to Cure Hiccups

Maybe you hold your breath. Maybe you chug water. Unfortunately, nothing has been found to reliably eliminate hiccups, despite the overwhelming number of folk remedies on the internet. This sad state of affairs is likely due to insufficient research: Serious cases of the hiccups are rare, and the mild cases are brief and don’t usually cause problems.

Most of the treatments for severe cases of hiccups—doses of sedating antipsychotics like haloperidol, vagus nerve stimulation, digital rectal massage—aren’t exactly things you could try on your own. For now, you’ll have to endure hiccups or stick with unproven, but usually harmless, solutions. At least they give you an excuse to eat peanut butter by the spoonful.

3. How General Anesthesia Works

As you’re rolling into surgery, you probably assume that your doctors not only know how to perform the procedure, but understand how the drugs that knock you out actually do so. But you’d be wrong. Scientists do know that local anesthetics like Novocain block pain signals before they reach the central nervous system by altering the function of specific proteins on nerve cells. But the molecular basis of general anesthesia is more of a mystery. These drugs seem to interfere with the functions of a variety of proteins on nerve cells in the central nervous system, but how they accomplish this is not well understood. General anesthetics come in a variety of types, and they likely don’t all work the same way, so developing models of how the compounds work on the molecular level may continue to be a challenge.

4. How Tylenol Kills Pain

A layperson taking Tylenol to relieve pain might think it works like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, which block some enzymes and, in turn, the pain- and inflammation-causing chemicals they produce. But that’s not the case—acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, seems to need specific chemical conditions to work on those enzymes, and it doesn’t appear to reduce inflammation as the NSAIDs do.

Some researchers think acetaminophen may alter the way pain is perceived by interacting with certain proteins on nerve cells, possibly including serotonin receptors, cannabinoid receptors, opioid receptors, and specific channels on nerves in the spinal cord that transmit pain and itch signals. Acetaminophen byproducts have also been shown to activate these channels rather than shutting them down, further complicating the question.

5. Why We Sleep

Too little sleep impairs thinking in the short term and increases the risk of several serious diseases in the long term, while complete sleep deprivation is fatal. We may have evolved to sleep because it aids healing, memory consolidation, and other important processes, but we still have much to learn about the ways sleeping achieves these ends. Other roles for sleep, like conserving energy during times when it wouldn’t be advantageous to be awake (for example, during scorching-hot days in Death Valley) have been proposed as well.

At least for now, we don’t have a single, conclusive answer to the question of why we sleep. But no matter how sleeping arose, we can probably accept that it provided a substantial evolutionary advantage once in place, since sleep is found across much of the animal kingdom.

6. Why Only Some Thunderstorms Produce Tornadoes

A standard explanation of how tornadoes form is that they’re spawned when cold, dry air mingles with warm, humid air—that’s how we justify the fact that Tornado Alley in the central United States, where Arctic air, air from the Southwest, and air from the Gulf of Mexico mix, has so many tornadoes. But that’s not the whole story. These conditions do create more thunderstorms, but not all thunderstorms include tornadoes, and scientists aren’t sure why.

In some cases, tornadoes may form is when there are temperature changes in the air flowing downward around mesocyclones (vortexes within the types of storms tornadoes can come from). This idea has theoretical and experimental support, but even without these temperature variations, tornadoes can still form, demonstrating how much more we have to learn about the phenomenon.

7. Why We Itch

At a basic level, itch is an unpleasant sensation that triggers the urge to scratch. Scratching could end up making an itch worse, but it may also serve a purpose. Mechanical itch—the kind triggered when fine hairs on your body are disturbed—may alert you to the presence of biting insects or parasites, and scratching could brush them away.

This hypothesis is difficult to test, and it doesn’t cover chemical itch caused by histamine and other scratch-provoking substances. Long after you’ve missed your chance to brush a mosquito off your skin, histamine in the itchy bump it has left behind continues to compel you to scratch. Whether this type of itching serves a purpose, or is simply an incidental activation of the itch system, isn’t conclusively known.

8. How We Age

Despite what many beauty experts claim, no one really has aging figured out. Reactive chemicals called free radicals are often blamed, but they’re not the sole cause of aging, and our cells have numerous ways to help keep damage caused by excess free radicals to a minimum. Shortening of the telomeres, the protective caps of DNA at the ends of each chromosome, is another frequently cited cause of aging—but it’s not the only factor. Numerous other contributors to aging have been discovered, but no single factor explains all or even most of the aging process, making this a difficult question to answer.

9. Why We Laugh

Laughter, like crying, may have developed as a social tool. Laughter doesn't appear to be a uniquely human behavior, and it may not even be limited to primates. Rats produce laughter when tickled, for example, and many other social animals, such as dolphins [PDF], make specific sounds associated with play-fighting that have been likened to laughter.

A leading hypothesis for why we laugh is that laughter promotes pro-social behavior by letting playmates know that the fighting is just a game. But even if our interpretations of these behaviors are correct, it’s possible that humans evolved different uses for laughter after our evolutionary splits with other animal species, making the reason for human laughter another open question.

10. How and Why Animals Migrate Back to Their Birthplaces

Some animals migrate to the sites of their birth to mate—a practice known as natal philopatry—with stunning precision. Female Antarctic fur seals, for example, can return to within one body length of their exact birthplaces to breed.

But how do they get there after months or years away? One possibility is that some migratory animals navigate by sensing variations in Earth’s geomagnetic field. While this makes sense given that some migratory animals, such as sea turtles, are known to be highly sensitive to these variations, it has not been conclusively demonstrated that they navigate this way.

Other creatures, such as Pacific salmon, may use smell to direct them toward their breeding grounds. These fish have been shown experimentally to be able to home in on chemical cues from the water in which they developed into adults. But these chemical breadcrumbs wouldn’t be detectable across the vast ocean, meaning that even if the salmon use them to navigate, they must also have a way to direct themselves close enough to the source to smell them. The complete mechanisms behind natal philopatry, even in this well-studied case, are still unknown.

11. What Dreams are For

If the question of why we sleep is complicated, the question of why we dream is even more so. Dreaming—especially with vivid, fanciful dreams—is most correlated with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which itself is poorly understood. One thought is that dreaming evolved to help us sort out or rehearse solutions to problems in our waking lives, but there is no hard evidence that this is the case.

Although our dreams may feel significant to us, it’s also possible that they serve no purpose—they may simply be a byproduct of other processes that occur during REM sleep. Studying the neurological basis of the strange and highly subjective experience of dreaming is complicated, which is why understanding the origin of dreaming is still beyond our grasp.

12. How Turbulence Happens

Understanding how turbulence works is incredibly important from an engineering perspective, since it affects everything from how internal combustion engines work to how far golf balls can travel. And now that most of classical physics (encompassing the laws of mechanics, thermodynamics, and so on) has long been established, turbulence is considered one of the biggest remaining problems in the field. No one has figured out a way to perfectly model turbulent flow.

Modeling turbulence requires the Navier–Stokes equations, which describe the motion of fluids (liquids, gases, and plasmas). And that’s the main problem: These equations themselves are poorly understood—so much so that producing a proof about one of their basic properties is one of the seven Millennium Prize Problems. It’s considered one of the most important open classic questions in math—and there's a million dollars waiting for anyone who can figure it out.

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

This 3D-Printed Sushi is Customized For You Based on the Biological Sample You Send In

Open Meals
Open Meals

Many high-end restaurants require guests to make a reservation before they dine. At Sushi Singularity in Tokyo, diners will be asked to send fecal samples to achieve the ideal experience. As designboom reports, the new sushi restaurant from Open Meals creates custom sushi recipes to fit each customer's nutritional needs.

Open Meals is known for its experimental food projects, like the "sushi teleportation" concept, which has robotic arms serving up sushi in the form of 3D-printed cubes. This upcoming venture takes the idea of a futuristic sushi restaurant to new extremes.

Guests who plan on dining at Sushi Singularity will receive a health test kit in the mail, with vials for collecting biological materials like urine, saliva, and feces. After the kit is sent back to the sushi restaurant, the customer's genome and nutritional status will be analyzed and made into a "Health ID." Using that information, Sushi Singularity builds personalized sushi recipes, optimizing ingredients with the nutrients the guest needs most. The restaurant uses a machine to inject raw vitamins and minerals directly into the food.

To make things even more dystopian, all the sushi at Sushi Singularity will be produced by a 3D-printer with giant robotic arms. The menu items make the most of the technology; a cell-cultured tuna in a lattice structure, powdered uni hardened with a CO2 laser, and a highly detailed model of a Japanese castle made from flash-frozen squid are a few of the sushi concepts Open Meals has shared.

The company plans to launch Sushi Singularity in Tokyo some time in 2020. Theirs won't be the first sushi robots to roll out in Japan: The food delivery service Ride On Express debuted sushi delivery robots in the country in 2017.

[h/t designboom]

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