As we've pointed out before, there are some startlingly simple questions that science can't answer. And then there are the special occasions where the universe up and does a freaking magic trick that seems to be designed by an unjust, all-powerful entity dedicated to making scientists slowly pull off their glasses while saying, "What in the hell?" For instance ...
#6. The Sun Can Make Stuff Hotter Than Itself
We intuitively understand the direction that energy travels -- from the thing with energy to the thing with less energy. That's why the second law of thermodynamics is among the first things you learn in science class that makes you say, "Well, shit, I could have told you that." If you're too hot, you move away from the campfire, not toward it. You don't need science to tell you that heat energy travels from the hot thing to the less-hot thing. Well, everywhere in the universe except the sun.
That asshole always has to be the center of attention.
There's a discrepancy between what science says should happen and what the sun actually does, and it's known as the sun's coronal heating problem. Essentially, when heat leaves the sun, the laws of thermodynamics just totally break down for a few hundred miles, and nobody can quite figure out why.
The facts are pretty straightforward; the sun's surface sits comfortably at a blazing temperature of roughly 5,500 degrees Celsius. No problem there. However, as the heat travels from the sun's surface to the layer a few hundred miles away from its surface (known as the sun's corona), it rises to a temperature of 1,000,000 degrees Celsius. Which is 995,000 degrees Celsius, or 1,791,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1 billion gigawatts per 1/4 gigabyte jiggawatt hour (metric) hotter than it has any right to be.
He's a loose cannon!
The heat source (the giant ball of nuclear explosions and plasma) should be the hottest thing, not the empty vacuum of space around it. This is the only instance in the known universe where the thing doing the heating is actually cooler than the thing it's heating.
And it's been plaguing solar physicists worldwide since they discovered the little disagreement reality has with our universe in 1939. How is it possible that the area around the sun is about 200 times hotter than its surface? It's not, according to the second law of thermodynamics and everything else we're supposed to know about how the universe works.
Would anything this awesome-looking follow rules dreamed up by some nerds?
#5. When You Look Closely, Gravity Stops Making Sense
There's a certain order to the world. Mice get eaten by wolves, motorcyclists get demolished by 18-wheelers and gravity presides over the whole crazy parade, keeping it stuck to the ground like a boss. Understanding where forces rank compared with one another allows us to predict and explain all the different ways in which they will interact. The problem is that gravity, the one force that's involved in just about every interaction that happens here on Earth, is kind of all over the map.
It's the functional alcoholic of forces.
When you look at it up close, gravity is decidedly on the mouse side of the hierarchy. Rub a balloon on your wool sweater (nice sweater, nerd) and pass it over a piece of paper. The tiny electromagnetic charge your sweater transferred to the balloon will lift the paper off the table, overcoming the Earth's gravitational pull. That's the same gravitational pull that tethers the moon in orbit around Earth. Up close, gravity gets its ass handed to it by a bond that's about as strong as worn-out Velcro. But over a distance of 234,000 miles, it acts like the chain on a mace being swung around the head of a planet-sized Viking.
Gravity: It'll smash your head in and violate your women.
This is what's known as the Higgs mass hierarchy problem. Gravity has a tendency to wreak havoc on scientific hierarchies because the closer you look at it, the more likely it is to disappear. It's predictable when you take a step back and watch it yank things out of midair, but on closer inspection, it completely vanishes. In fact, at the realm of particle physics, gravity is 10 ^ 32 times weaker than the second weakest force.
The Earth's mass is 5.97 x 10 ^ 24 kilograms, which allows it to generate the supremely powerful and inescapable force that has held you on the surface of the Earth since you popped out of your mom. The fact that the stray electricity hanging out on your sweater could counteract it makes as much sense as a starving African child being able to bench-press a skyscraper.
The second she puts a hat on, the tides will be fucked.
#4. Satellites Speed Up for No Reason
Imagine you're pushing a baby on a swing set. At a certain point his squeals of delight start to turn anxious, so you stop pushing him, muttering something about it being true what they say about babies being little cowards. Once you stop pushing the baby, instead of slowing to a stop, he starts swinging higher and higher. The baby is just sitting there, not moving, and yet he appears to be gaining momentum. Your only option is to pull out your phone and curse the Ghostbusters theme for not including a phone number, because the universe is suddenly behaving like it's been run backward through a film projector.
The universe was slow to go digital.
This might be because you remember the law of conservation of energy, which says that energy can't be created or destroyed, just transferred. So you'll never get more energy out of something than what you started with unless you add it. Unfortunately, one of the simplest laws of physics has to have an asterisk next to it. Go down to the bottom of the page and you'll find something along the lines of "This is usually the case, but occasionally the universe gets a hankering to let an object passing by the Earth just up and gain speed for no real reason. We assume this is because someone somewhere is fucking with us."
Reality makes so much sense if you just assume God likes to get fucked up as often as the rest of us.
It's called the flyby anomaly because there are multiple instances where NASA's Galileo, NEAR, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft have experienced an unexplainable increase in speed over massive distances. It's always when they're passing Earth at enough of a distance to not be affected by its gravitational pull, yet they somehow pick up speed, like some universal force is inside stepping on the accelerator.
"Is this where we speed up for no particular reason?" "Nope, the blue one." -- Whoever's screwing with us.
The anomaly was only first noticed in 1980, and science has spent the ensuing decades trying to figure out what the hell is going on. They've accounted for every type of energy that's ever been discovered. So far, they don't even have a real theory. So we could suggest that the spacecraft are just showing off for the home crowd, and that would be as good as anything science has come up with so far.
"Wizards. We're chalking it up to wizards."