The field of science is capable of some amazing things, mostly because it's filled with all the Albert Einsteins and Doogie Howsers the world has produced over the centuries. But it may shock you that some of the most mundane, everyday concepts are as big a mystery to scientists as they are to the average toddler.
Things like ...
#8. Why We Sleep
As far as we know, virtually every creature on earth enjoys a good night's rest as much as people do (though the hours we choose to sleep varies greatly). So obviously sleep must serve a key purpose for all living things, right? Well, it turns out science doesn't have a clue.
That's why science sits outside your room every night, watching.
What we have is a handful of proposed explanations for sleep that not many scientists can agree on. There's the theory that it's helping the brain clean house after a long day of learning. You see, your brain is constantly generating new pathways thanks to all the stuff that you see and do all day, so sleeping is when all the useless info gets tossed out.
Or maybe, instead of ditching the stuff that's not necessary, the brain might be reinforcing the stuff you do need. Scientists have seen that, when rats were asleep, the same neurons fired as when they had run mazes earlier that day. That means that the rats are essentially reliving their day and "practicing" the maze. This has led Harvard sleep researchers to assert that sleep is crucial for humans to form memories and to learn.
So really, passing out in the middle of an all-nighter is a valid study tactic.
But there's a problem with both of these theories. Plants and microorganisms, otherwise known as "things without brains," have dormant states that are very similar to sleep, which kind of puts doubt on the whole "sleep is good for the brain" theory. Then there's the fact that scientists have found certain humans who can go without sleep with no ill effects. There's even one dude who claims he hasn't slept a wink in 33 years.
In fact, all of these theories kind of went out the window when researchers discovered a gene mutation that allows people to sleep two to four hours a night without any adverse effects at all. So, is sleep useless, then? Is it just God's way of making us take a break between masturbation sessions? Your guess is as good as science's.
"We have found a strong, positive correlation between bong hits and passing out on the field behind the gym."
#7. How Many Planets Are in Our Solar System
Since Pluto was surprisingly kicked out of the solar system treehouse, we've known that the membership of the Planets Club is subject to change at science's whim. What you may not have realized is that the current inventory of eight planets and one sun is pretty much just science's best guess for the time being.
And somewhere out there, Pluto sheds a lonely tear.
It sounds bizarre, considering you all saw the same model of the solar system in elementary school. And every time you hear anything about space in the news, it's always badass telescope this, or new photograph of faraway galaxy that. We're mapping the edge of the freaking known universe over here. There's no way anything in our own cosmic backyard is escaping our notice, right?
Faulkes Telescope Project
We even took a picture of a space cloud that looks like a space pig humping a space turtle. The truth is out there, all right. And it's weird.
But despite what Big Space wants you to believe, the vast majority of our solar system is still uncharted and unknown. The area between Mercury and the sun is too bright to see, and the area beyond Uranus is too dark. Scientists are still finding new objects in theasteroid belt by the hundreds of thousands. Oh yeah, and some of astronomers think there might be a second sun. Seriously.
They've named it Nemesis because it flings comets at us. Nothing NASA says can convince us this isn't Galactus.
You see, not even our best telescope technology can see things that are far behind Pluto, where sunlight doesn't illuminate things all that well and where we're essentially blind. So astronomers have to combine vague clues and guesswork to figure out what's going on out there, kind of like space CSI.
First off, the fact that there's a huge gap in asteroids after a certain distance behind Pluto tells scientists that there's very likely a planet between the size of Earth and Mars that gobbled up all the space rock out there, so yeah, our solar system is probably back up to nine planets again. They're getting really tired of rewriting those middle school textbooks. And speaking of Pluto, astronomers have also discovered an object named Sedna orbiting the sun, and although no one's a hundred percent certain of its size, they're pretty sure it's carrying at least Pluto's heft.
Our next goal as a species should be to fashion these dwarf planets into a pair of Truck Balls for Earth.
But wait, that's not all, folks. Another little anomaly that astronomers have noticed is that comets' orbits aren't exactly going along as predicted. The explanation? There must be another planet out there that's affecting the icy rocks' orbits. And according to their hypothesis, this mother of a planet is huge -- like, "four times the size of Jupiter" huge. Named Tyche, this giant gas ball is way too far away for sunlight to reach it, but still, scientists are pretty confident that evidence gathered from a NASA telescope will prove its existence very soon. Who knows, in a few years, naming all the planets may be as hard as naming all 50 states.
#6. Why Ice Is Slippery
Saying that ice is slippery is like saying that water is wet -- it's something we've known for as long as we can be said to have known anything. Presumably, humans as a species knew ice was slippery before we knew fire was hot, or that it existed. But ask anyone why, and they won't be able to give you any better explanation than one of those cave people would have.
Our intern Thoog suspects that either evil spirits or flash thawing is the culprit.
We just don't know why it is that you can ski on ice but not on boulders. Although at this point, most of you are probably screaming "It's water, stupid!" -- and that's more or less the answer that scientists have always concluded. Even in some modern textbooks you can still read the popular explanation: Unlike most substances, ice expands when it freezes. So when you walk on it, you're actually compacting it back into slippery old water. Sounds simple, right? Too bad then that it's bullshit. Experiments have shown that your puny body doesn't exert nearly enough pressure on ice to squeeze even a tiny bit of it into liquid.
Science: "We don't know ... ice fairies, maybe?"
There are some competing theories, though none of them are better than the others. One popular theory is that the surface of ice remains liquid because there's nothing but open air on one side to put pressure on it. And some tests have confirmed that -- although they also confirm that the liquid layer is probably too thin to have any effect on friction.
Another theory that scientists have put forward is that ice is not actually slippery at all. Though this sounds like something that science, exasperated, would proclaim while waving a gun in your face to make you stop asking stupid questions, a guy named Dr. Salmeron thinks that the roughness on the surface of ice is actually so high that, ironically, it becomes slippery when you flash-melt it due to the sheer friction you're applying to it. Of course, in the same breath, Dr. Salmeron admits he may be talking out of his ass.
"Science has no hard answers, only questions and tasteful sweaters."
#5. How a Bicycle Works
Bicycles have been around since the early 19th century, and its basic design has actually changed relatively little for almost 200 years. You always had two wheels, a frame to connect them and a handlebar for steering, and you required a person completely devoid of shame to ride on it.
It turns out skintight short-shorts are an improvement in bicycle fashion.
At the very least, you'd think that the guy who invented the damn thing knew what he was doing, but after more than a century of research, science has been forced to conclude that he was probably some kind of sorcerer. The first bicycles were invented, not through any kind of scientific procedure, but by dumb old trial and error. Even modern bike design schools admit that it's not engineering or computer knowledge that make a good bike designer, but instead "intuition and experience."
So, what happens when you ask scientists exactly what makes a bicycle stable? Or what keeps it going? Or how people ride them? Well, odds are they'll either nervously tell you that they have cookies in the oven and run out on you, or if they're honest, they'll give you a pretty big shrug. In fact, top bike researchers admit that, even though some people have come up with equations on how to ride a bike or how they think bikes work, those equations are pretty much fancy icing on top of a cake of cluelessness. One Cornell researcher even says that absolutely nobody has ever come to an intuitive understanding of what makes a bicycle do its thing.
Science: "We've narrowed it down to either spoke fairies or wheel fairies."
For ages, scientists assumed that the gyroscopic effect (the force that keeps a spinning top from falling over) was the key for a bike's balance. But nope! In the '70s, a scientist disproved that theory.
So then, scientists thought that the principal factor for a bike's stability was something called the caster effect, or trail (something to do with the front wheel's angle away from the frame). But just this year, top bikeologists from Cornell and other universities formed an angry scientific mob, then torched and pitchforked that theory as well. They did this by building a goofy-looking bike that has no gyroscopic effect and no trail, but manages to stay upright nonetheless.
"Look, Ma! No physics!"
So scientists are essentially back at square one, as things such as steering geometry and the physics of stability are all going back to the drawing board. At least you can be secure in the knowledge that the humiliation you feel when you ride a bike is akin to the humiliation science feels when it's asked how a bike stays up.