Whatever your view of the world, even the most diehard rationalist admits there are things that science simply can't explain. Perhaps our understanding hasn't advanced that far yet and science will one day provide an answer... or are these mysteries destined to never receive an answer from the world of science?
We've rounded up some of the biggest mysteries that nobody has yet found an answer for...
1. The Wow Signal
If you think being on hold whilst talking to someone about your insurance renewal is boring, imagine spending years listening to outer space to pick up signs of alien life getting in touch. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI as it's commonly known, is based on sweeping the heavens to pick up radio signals which indicate a pattern or intelligence behind them. It's not just DJs giving you a rundown on Justin Bieber's latest chart position which send out radio waves, everything from the sun through to a supermassive black hole at the centre our own galaxy, give off radio waves. By studying these waves, we can create a more complete map of deep space than by just using optical telescopes. The scientists and the software they've written are looking for something that stands out from the natural, background signals they're receiving twenty-four hours a day.
On August 15th, 1977, an incredibly strong signal was received by Ohio State University's Big Ear Radio telescope. A few days later, a project volunteer, Jerry Ehman, was sifting through the data when he spotted the signal. It showed a signal that stuck out like a huge spike amongst the background buzz. So strong was the signal that Jerry marked it out on a print out and wrote ‘Wow!' next to it. Perhaps something more poetic like 'Holy F**k!' might have been more appropriate by astronomers aren't know for their turn of phrase.
Astronomers very quickly determined the signal was not terrestrial in origin. Knowing where the radio telescope was pointing at the time the signal was received means we know exactly where the signal came from - just to the north west of the constellation of Sagittarius. After initially being skeptical about the alien source of the signal, thinking it might have been from the military down here on earth, Ehman is now on the record as saying he believes it is from an extraterrestrial civilisation. Despite repeated scans of the same part of the sky the signal hasn't been detected since, so perhaps those aliens have gone shy?
Another possible explanation include the signal coming from the head of a comet, and there are tests due to occur in early 2017 to try and prove this is the solution, but opinion is still very much divided on the signal.
If aliens are behind it, let's hope they're not easily offended. On the 35th anniversary of the Wow! Signal, the Arecibo Observatory beamed a response back at the origin of the signal, consisting of 10,000 Twitter messages. We're not sure aliens receiving 10,000 tweets will consider it a greeting, or will take offence and launch an attack. Looking at the state of Twitter these days, we're thinking it could go either way.
2. Alien Megastructure Orbiting A Star - Tabby's Star or KIC 8462852
An alien megastructure sounds incredible, doesn't it? The kind of thing you'll see CGI'd up screen during a science fiction film, but they don't actually exist, do they? We don't know for certain but it is one option that astronomers have come up with to explain a series of incredible observations they've made of a mystery object that is orbiting a star only 1276 light years away. (Yes, that is very far away, but if it turns out to be bad news, perhaps not that far enough!)
KIC 8462852 is a snappily named star, also known as Tabby's star after Tabetha Boyajian, one off the astronomers who discovered it whilst hunting for ‘exoplanets'. An exoplanet is a planet orbiting a star outside our solar system, and in recent years astronomers, equipped with ever more powerful telescopes, have been hunting through the night skies to find planets which could possible support life. What brought KIC 8462852 to their attention is a series of changes in the brightness levels of the star, a possible explanation for which are items constructed by an intelligent life form orbiting that star and interfering, in a regular way, with our view of that star. Imagine a torch shining at you at night, whilst a series of objects are moved in front of it. We can get a guess at the size of these objects by measuring how the light levels drop when the move in front of the star.
It's been hypothesised that the specific construction making this light pattern could be an enormous alien megastructure called a Dyson Swarm, an orbiting array constructed to gather energy or perhaps for defensive purposes.
Other possible explanations include cometary fragments or parts of other planets. Whilst those might seem more likely explanation, astronomers have also reported the overall brightness of the star has dropped considerably in recent years, in a way they've not seen anywhere else. Which is worrying. With further observations planned for May 2017, we may not have long to wait before we find out exactly what is going on out there.
3. The Voynich Manuscript
Human history is littered with ‘dead languages', examples of patterns of writing and speech that fall out of fashion and are no longer in use. The famous rosetta stone, discovered in Egypt in 1799 and displayed in the British Museum in London, provides a perfect examples of three dead languages, Ancient Greek, Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Demotic, an ancient Egyptian script. The fact that the same text was inscribed in the stone in the three different languages provided a key for students of these languages to translate and understand them. A useful technique which has helped scholars to translate and understand written language back to its beginning in around 3200 BC.
So what is the Voynich Manuscript, and why does it provide such a mystery? Simply put, it came into the possession of a rare book dealer, Wilfrid Voynich, in 1912. It's a hand-written book from an unknown author, carbon-dated to sometime between 1404-1438, lavishly illustrated and suspected to have been written in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The mystery really lies in the fact that in hundreds of years of study, including research performed by teams of cryptographers and NASA scientists, nobody has yet determined what the book is about as it's written using characters nobody has seen before. Somebody appears to have gone to incredible effort to have written a 240 page book using a code that nobody can crack.
The book, the parchment and the paints and inks used have been extensively tested and determined to be authentic. But it is the script itself that presents the biggest mystery. Written using 20-25 unrecognised characters to form what appear to be 35,000 words, apart from a few scraps of latin on some of the pages, nobody has been able to translate a single word.
The extensive illustrations in the book are split into six different sections: Herbal, Astronomical, Biological, Cosmological, Pharmaceutical and Recipes.
So, if we can't read it, what's out best guess about what it actually is? Some think it's attempting to detail information around medicine, with a focus on plant life which formed a central part of medieval medical knowledge. Others think it's perhaps a work of art, not intending to have any meaning apart from that of display. Others think it's just a hoax - albeit one constructed with incredible effort hundreds of years ago. The effort involved in it's production lead many to conclude the book can't be a hoax, and was written with a code we just haven't been able to crack yet. Although we don't know who or why wrote the book, it continues to attract interest so perhaps an answer is not that far away.
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4. The Simulation Hypothesis
Ever had the feeling that everything around you is fake, like a reality TV show you're starring in, but someone forgot to let you know you were the star attraction? Ok, sounds like The Truman Show, but the idea that our reality is perhaps an illusion goes all the way to the ancient Greek philosophers, but a new theory has brought this idea up to date in a surprising way.
In 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom proposed the theory that we are all, right now, living inside a computer. That mankind advances to a stage at some point in the future where the massive amounts of computing power available to them means they can run huge simulations of human life to help understand their history. Simulations so accurate, that the humans modelled in those simulations are actually conscious. That includes me, writing this, and you, reading it, by the way. Strange, when you stop to think about it, isn't it? This stems from an argument he made which is that if you assume human knowledge continues to expand and develop, at some point in the future humanity will be capable of running these kind of simulations. Therefore, what's to say we're not all part of these simulations already? The alternative option being that we have to assume mankind doesn't advance to such a level, being wiped out by asteroids, or American Presidents which access to nuclear launch codes, for example.
Want to ramp the weirdness up a couple of notches?
Firstly, nobody has yet come up with a convincing argument to prove that we're not all living inside a vast computer model in the future. Some physicists believe we may able to do this by examining the distribution of ultra high energy cosmic rays, but aren't sure exactly how they'll do this.
When you add in the theory of the multiverse, which is supported by several leading physicists, including Professors Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox, things get even more bizarre. The multiverse theory is that the universe we live in is just one of many, possibly infinite, universes in existence at the same time. So does that mean all the different universes are just other software programs running in a simulation? Nobody knows, but perhaps a grain of comfort if all this turns to be true is that whatever goes wrong in your life - you drop your toast jam side down, your pet craps on your new carpet, your girlfriend/boyfriend leaves you for your best mate, Donald Trump becomes President of the USA - at least we can blame it on some dodgy computer programming.
5. Mass Hysteria
Picture the scene. It's 1374. You're living by the Rhine river in Germany. Minding your own business, being a peasant, eating mud, that kind of thing. Suddenly, you think you'll break the monotony of medieval life by dancing. For no apparent reason. So you start getting your groove on, a couple of hours later, you're still going. And you only stop dancing when... actually, you can't stop. You don't stop for food, or water, and you keep dancing until you die from exhaustion a few days later. Taken in isolation, that would sound pretty odd. But what if this dancing plague simultaneously affected 400 of your friends and neighbours, with dozens of them dying from a terminal case of the funk? And it didn't stop there, the dancing plague spread across Northern France and the Netherlands. Only stopping after it had grooved its way across Northern Europe for several months. This disco fever then popped up again in Strasbourg in 1518.
If that wasn't enough, what about the nuns in a French convent in the middle ages who all started meowing like cats together? Or another nun in 15th century France who spontaneously started biting her fellow nuns. A behaviour that spread across Europe, as far as Germany, Holland and Italy.
And though these events might sound like they were made up, all of these cases are well documented. Not only that, these kind of events continue to happen, including very recently in the UK.
In July 1980 at the Hollinwell Showgrounds in Kirkby-In-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, around 300 children suffered fainting attacks and ‘falling like ninepins' according to a witness. Symptoms included sore eyes, vomiting and dizziness. The children all recovered, but no cause could be found. Some people suggested a pesticide that may have been sprayed in local fields, poisoned water or food supplies and even radio waves. However the official enquiry ruled that mass hysteria was the cause.
So what is mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness, as it's also known?
It's defined as the spontaneous or rapid spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a specific population. And not just beliefs, it can also include physical symptoms. Nobody really has answered how these kind of events occur, or why, but there are some interesting statistics that appear when you examine these cases, leading to an interesting conclusion. Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who has examined cases of mass hysteria going back hundreds of years, believe that 99% of people affected are female. So is he just being a bit sexist? Not really, as according to Bartholomew this is key to understanding mass hysteria. As he believes it is triggered by the frustrations and pressures women experience whilst living in male dominated society. Can that really explain a rapid spread of fainting episodes through hundreds of children? His belief is that once one person ‘cracks' under pressure, is enough to trigger classmates or workmates who are similarly stressed.
It sounds unbelievable, but the cases are well documented, it just seems nobody has yet come up with a definitive explanation.
6. Dark Energy
We'll got a bit Interstellar on this one, so have a herbal tea, empty your brain, and blast off...
Space is big, and keeps getting bigger. We have observed the universe expanding despite the fact that space-time - which is what the cosmos is made of, is being pulled together by gravity. So there must be a force which is stronger than gravity, which is pushing the fabric of the universe apart, a force astrophysicists have termed ‘dark energy. And it accounts for over 70% of the universe you and I are currently zinging around in. The only problem is nobody knows what it is, or how to even start looking for it.
With the fact we can therefore safely conclude there is plenty of space in our world for weird things to happen in our every day lives that we just can't explain.
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