Famous Mysteries With Scientific Explanations
As human beings, we are always observing our world and trying to make sense of it. Traditionally, whenever we encounter something we can't make sense of, we make up a story to explain it. Why do so many ships and planes seem to go missing inside a random triangular area of the ocean near Bermuda? Must be aliens. For thousands and thousands of years, these popular explanations have been enough. But as our understanding of the world has progressed, science has begun offering scientific explanations for these phenomena, based on actual evidence.
Even though science has effectively solved these historical mysteries, many of us still prefer to believe in the myths. We're not here to ruin anyone's fun. But we are here to tell you that the scientific explanation is often just as interesting as the fantastical one. Here are some famous "mysteries" that science has actually solved.
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Anastasia Romanov Did Not Disappear And Assume Another Identity; Her Remains Were Verified In 1991
Whether it's Elvis Presley, Tupac, or Andy Kaufman, people love to speculate that a beloved celebrity who passed - especially at a premature age - might actually be alive somewhere. It's pretty unlikely that the most famous people in the world could suddenly decide to live anonymously and then successfully pull it off for decades - but for believers, it's easier to buy into such a theory than accept that their favorite celebrity is gone. One of the earliest subjects of these theories was Princess Anastasia Romanov, daughter of the slain Czar Nicholas II of Russia.
In Anastasia's case, the circumstances of her demise and its aftermath helped spread these rumors. When the Bolshevik Revolution toppled the czarist government on March 15, 1917, the Bolsheviks captured the Romanovs (including Anastasia), took them to a remote location in the Ural Mountains, and executed them. The executioners offered conflicting and confusing accounts of what happened in that house, but more importantly, the Romanovs' bodies went missing for decades. The lack of physical proof of their demise allowed rumors to propagate. Lending more credence to these theories, multiple people in the subsequent years claimed to be long-lost heirs to the Romanov fortune, and one woman claimed to be Anastasia herself. In 1920, a Polish German woman named Franziska Schanzkowska told the German press she was the ill-fated princess, and fought for years to be legally recognized as such. Schanzkowska eventually moved to the United States and came to be known as Anna Anderson. She insisted she was Anastasia until her passing in 1984.
But thanks to DNA, that is one theory that can be scientifically tested. The Romanovs' remains were rediscovered in 1979, and they were finally tested after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The tests proved that the five bodies belonged to Nicholas II; his wife, Alexandra; and three of their daughters: Anastasia, Olga, and Tatiana. For good measure, scientists in 1994 also tested Anderson's DNA and proved she was definitely not a Romanov.
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The Mysterious 'Starchild Skull' Came From A Human With Congenital Hydrocephalus
Popular myths can often inspire pop culture, but in this case, it's the other way around. In 1999, paranormalist and former Magnum, P.I. writer Lloyd Pye introduced the world to a misshapen skull he claimed as proof of extraterrestrial life. The "Starchild skull" is child-sized and features an enlarged cranium, a flattened back, and no sinuses. Pye also claimed the skull's teeth were much more worn down than a child's would be, and that it was made of organic materials unknown to science. Pye believed the skull belonged to an alien-human hybrid with a human mother and extraterrestrial father, resembling the "little grey men" depicted by sci-fi author Whitley Strieber and the TV show The X-Files.
But scientists who examined the Starchild skull didn't agree. A dentist who examined the skull's teeth concluded that it belonged to a child aged about 5 years old. A neurologist found that the skull's deformations are consistent with congenital hydrocephalus, and DNA tests concluded the remains were entirely human in origin.
- Photo: Briellecfarmer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.032,080 VOTES
Gravity-Defying 'Mystery Spot' Attractions Are Usually Built On A Slant, Messing With Peoples’ Perceptions Of The Horizon
The folks who run tourist attractions like the Santa Barbara Mystery Spot would have us believe the Earth is full of areas in which the laws of physics don't apply. If you go inside one of these so-called mystery spots, you'll see strange phenomena like balls that appear to roll uphill or people standing on an incline perfectly upright, without leaning. It looks like they should topple over, but somehow they don't. At least a dozen of these mystery spots have opened around the US since the 1930s, baffling thousands of visitors every year. Without an obvious scientific explanation, people have speculated that mystery spots are caused by anything from the Bermuda Triangle to "anti-gravitational forces" influenced by UFOs.
Not quite. Like the "Flying Dutchman" or a Fata Morgana, mystery spots are another optical illusion with a simple cause. But unlike those mysteries, mystery spots are purposely designed to create the effect. In 1998, a group of Berkeley psychologists studied these mystery spots and concluded that they rely on an assumption our brains make when viewing objects. The brain helps us orient ourselves horizontally and vertically in space by using the horizon as a reference point. When humans can't see the horizon, our brains use our immediate surroundings. Mystery spots like the one in Santa Barbara are built on hillsides, and their designs are purposely skewed to fool the eye. The person in this photo is simply standing upright. It's the house surrounding her that's skewed.
- Photo: Lgcharlot / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.043,831 VOTES
The Death Valley Sailing Stones Don't Move On Their Own, They Float On Pieces Of Ice
The Racetrack Playa is a flat, dry lakebed in the middle of a desert with the lowest elevation in North America. It's also home to mysterious "sailing stones" that have baffled visitors since the early 1900s. To an untrained observer, it looks like these stones have moved across the surface of the lakebed entirely on their own, leaving tracks up to 1,500 feet long without any sign of human or animal interference. Many theories have been offered to explain this phenomenon, including strong winds, the pull of the Earth's magnetic field, a clever prankster - or, once again, aliens.
But thanks to a devoted team of scientists, we now know why these stones move. In 2011, researchers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography attached GPS devices to 15 rocks and left to monitor them. Two years later, they returned to the site and were lucky enough to witness the phenomenon in person. When Death Valley receives a rare winter rainstorm, water can pool on the flat lakebed and freeze overnight, creating large panes of ice around the rocks. In the morning, the ice thaws and cracks into large sheets, and a light gust of wind is all that's needed to move the ice across the lakebed's surface. The ice sheets push the rocks across the lakebed and then melt, leaving nothing behind but the rock's tracks. The scientists called the phenomenon "ice shoving." One of them jokingly described the study as "the most boring experiment ever."
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'The Bloop,' An Underwater Noise That Sounded Like A Deep-Sea Monster, Was The Sound Of An Icequake
The ocean is still relatively unexplored, and some believe it's just as mysterious as the depths of outer space. Recently, a strange phenomenon seemed to give credence to the belief that unknown terrors might still lurk beneath the ocean's surface. In 1997, researchers at the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who were using underwater hydrophones to detect volcanic activity, recorded a mysterious sound in the southern Pacific Ocean they described as a "bloop." Since the bloop sounded like it was made by an animal, similar to a whale's mating call, and because it originated over 5,000 kilometers from the listening station, some speculated that it was caused by a previously unknown sea monster.
But the NOAA investigated the sound further and determined it wasn't an animal at all. By comparing the bloop's acoustics with other sound recordings taken in Antarctica, they recognized it had the same characteristics as the sound of "ice calving," AKA an "icequake," or the phenomenon of an iceberg breaking away from a glacier as it melts. Part of the confusion came from the fact that the original bloop recording was often replayed at 16 times its actual speed, which made it sound a lot less like a rumbling quake and more like an animal.
- Photo: Hermann Hendrich / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain61,461 VOTES
Will-O’-The-Wisps From Folklore Were Likely Inspired By Methane Gas Emanating From Swamps
European folklore is full of fantastical creatures, from leprechauns to boggarts to the Baba Yaga, and one of the most enduring folk myths is the "will-o'-the-wisp." Throughout history, people have reported seeing mysterious flickering lights floating over marshes and swamplands at night. Witnesses have speculated these lights are spirits stuck in limbo and wandering the Earth. Often, a will-o'-the-wisp sighting is considered a bad omen. Although the term originates from Great Britain, will-o'-the-wisps appear in different cultures around the world.
"Comparative mythology" is a term used when different societies have similar myths. Different cultures can have nearly identical folklore either because their folklore reflects a universal human concern (i.e. a belief in the afterlife) or they're all inspired by the same natural phenomenon.
In this case, it's the latter. Most likely, will-o'-the-wisp reports are really just swamp gas sightings. Usually when organic matter perishes, it decomposes. But in swamps, lifeless organic matter gets submerged and decomposes underground, without exposure to the air. This decomposition creates "swamp gas," a combination of methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphines, and other chemicals. When swamp gas does get exposed to the air, it can spontaneously ignite and cause a flickering effect like the will-o'-the-wisp.