5 Basic Things You Won't Believe Science Can't Explain
In school you learned all about a few basic concepts that prepared you for a lifetime of barely understanding the simplest things in this complicated world. It wasn't much, but it's all you have. And we're about to take that away from you. Don't think we're condescending. It turns out we don't understand a goddamn thing anymore either, and frankly, we are sick of it. Time to rage-quit this whole thinking business and get back to hitting things we don't understand with sticks. First up on the old stick-list is ...
(For all the experts know, gravity might as well be created by a Viking physics-god. Read our De-Textbook to find out why and own a sweet cartoon of said Asgardian.)
Water Is the Weirdest Substance on Earth
What You Were Taught
It's the most basic and abundant compound you can think of, making up most of the world's surface and your body. Surely we've got water, if nothing else, pinned down.
We're especially good at turning it into pee.
But Really ...
Water doesn't behave like any other chemical. We've discussed before the various ways that you can make water do magic, and these things are possible only because water is a maverick that plays by its own rules. It would likely wear a sexy leather jacket, if we could get the bastard to stay in form long enough.
For example, a very simple principle of matter is that a liquid fills less volume when it freezes into a solid. That's because the molecules are closer together, which is why it gets hard (although strangely, ladies, if we get closer together and something gets hard, the volume only goes up). But water, unlike anything else, actually expands when it freezes, as you'll know if you've ever had a beer explode in the freezer after forgetting about it. This is why ice cubes float -- unlike any other substance, the frozen version is lighter and less dense than the liquid version.
Much to the Titanic's dismay.
Why? Nobody knows. It's been a mystery to science ever since Science first graduated from Science School. There are complicated theories, but none of them are a slam dunk. In fact, despite the fact that water is the most ubiquitous substance, we know embarrassingly little about it. Why is ice slippery? Fuck if science knows that one either.
That's not where water's mysteries end, either. For some reason, hot water freezes faster than cold water. That is to say, if you take a glass of hot water and a glass of cold water and put them both in the freezer at the same time, the hot water will turn to ice before the cold water does. It's called the Mpemba effect, because it was discovered by a Tanzanian high school student named Erasto Mpemba in 1969. Actually, it was first discovered by Aristotle, but that guy was getting all the glory anyway, and Mpemba really needed a win.
Plus, Aristotle was notorious for making shit up.
Again, the reason for this is completely unknown. We're just going to have to assume that water is some kind of sorcery and hope that the warlocks in charge of it are not angered by the fact that we poop in their magic every day.
Time Is Relative and May Not Even Exist
What You Were Taught
Things you did are in the past, things you're going to do are in the future, things you're doing right now are currently happening no matter how hard you wish you could return that stolen cop car, and, barring the misuse of a DeLorean, we're all moving along in one direction at the same speed.
Old. We're all moving in the direction of old.
But Really ...
When physicists are doing their eggheady equations about the nature of reality, they don't factor time into it. Why? Because time doesn't matter to them. Equations work just the same if time goes forward, backward, or sideways. In fact, as far as physics is concerned, time is pretty much an illusion.
Of course, it's hard to say that time is an illusion if we all experience it the same, but here's the kicker: We don't. According to Einstein, we experience time at relative speeds. By infinitesimal amounts, someone who is sitting down is actually aging more slowly than someone who is running a marathon. It's not just a thought experiment with no real-world consequence -- GPS satellites have to account for time relativity to work properly, because time is literally moving more slowly on the satellite than it is on Earth. That means that scientists working on the International Space Station return to Earth younger than their colleagues on the ground, because time moves more quickly on Earth than it does in space. It's an almost immeasurably small amount, of course, but that doesn't stop them from being smug about it at your 40th birthday party, does it?
You can at least remind them of how fat they were.
Then there's the fact that nobody really knows why time seems to move in only one direction to us, because as far as physics is concerned, the "arrow of time" is irrelevant to studying physical processes -- math doesn't need time (math got aaalll the time in the world for you, baby). In that sense, the fact that we can remember the past but not the future seems to be entirely arbitrary. Scientists have spent a lot of brainpower trying to figure out why that is, but they're only human, abstract concepts are pretty difficult, the new PlayStation looks awesome, and we haven't made much progress on this whole time thing. You don't need a scientist to understand how that formula works.
Plants Can Communicate and Do Complex Arithmetic
What You Were Taught
Plants are at the bottom of the food chain for a reason. Having no brains or feelings or ability to move or sense of humor, they fit the definition of "organism" only on a most basic level. You're just ... you're fuckin' dumb, plants. There, we said it. God, it feels so good to just get that out there, you know?
We pee on you.
But Really ...
What if we told you that plants are better at arithmetic than you are? Or ... better than we are, at least. Researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich recently discovered that plants have an innate ability to calculate mathematical equations. They do this in order to figure out how much starch they have in reserve overnight -- because plants generate food for themselves only in sunlight. They take stock every evening to make sure they have enough food to last the night and adjust their rations accordingly.
Of course, they still don't have brains, so they're not doing this consciously. Don't worry, the plants aren't plotting against you -- or at least they're not very good at it, and you will likely escape. But it doesn't change the fact that their cells are like tiny calculators with an impressive degree of sophistication. You could probably even spell boobs on them, if you flipped the leaf upside down. We, uh ... we don't have much use for calculators, ourselves.
At least not until we hire someone named "Debbie."
And although plants may not have a language, that doesn't mean that they don't communicate. You know the fragrant aroma of freshly cut grass? Perhaps the chief indicator that tells you summer has finally arrived? That sweet, nostalgic scent that warms your soul? That's actually wounded grass screaming for help. You are rejoicing at the torturous screeches of another living creature, you sick bastard. See, plants don't communicate through sounds, but smells. And although they don't have a nervous system in the same way that we do, they do have a rudimentary nerve structure that allows them to feel a kind of pain. That fresh grass smell is your lawn warning the neighbor's lawn that there's a madman with some kind of medieval torture device slashing into it. It's telling all the other grass in the area to run, for god's sake, leave it -- it's already dead -- but save yourselves! LIVE!
The great tragedy, of course, is that grass is not very good at running.
Pi Is the Weirdest Number
What You Were Taught
It's that circle thing, right? You might remember the formula for figuring out the circumference of a circle from back in grade school, which was both the first and last time you ever needed to do so. Nerds know it a little better, probably from the old MIT sports cheer: "Cosine, secant, tangent, sine, 3.14159." Apparently MIT does sports a little differently. But regardless, can you think of a less impressive number than pi?
But Really ...
Pi is everything.
There is no Zuul. There is only pi.
No, seriously -- it is everything.
It's what's known as an "irrational number," which means that it can't be written out in full or expressed as a fraction. If you try to write out the digits of pi on a sheet of paper, then you better have a lot of paper and a lot of time, because they keep going on literally into infinity. You can't fit pi inside this universe. And because the digits are randomly distributed and never, ever repeat, there's no shortcut to knowing it, either.
No matter how much those bastards tell you 22/7 equals pi, don't believe them.
That means that we can't really calculate the circumference of a circle, because we can't really know what pi is. We can get pretty damn close, though -- we've calculated it up to 10 trillion digits. If you're wondering, the 10 trillionth is 1. Ha! We used up a little part of your brain, just for storing that information, sucker.
If it's not weird enough that the universe can't contain pi, then hold onto your hats -- pi might contain the whole universe. Obviously, we're getting into the realm of the theoretical, but bear with us here. Because pi is an eternal, non-repeating series of numbers, on a long enough timescale it contains every possible sequence of digits. If you think of those digits as a kind of code, then mostly it's just gibberish, but occasionally patterns will emerge. In thousands of squillions of digits, you might find the code for a dog or a banana. Read it long enough, and you might find a code for the entire universe. Not only that, but every alternative universe. Pi is basically the Matrix. Pi is also Zion outside of the Matrix. Pi is also you, watching The Matrix on your couch and being disappointed in all but the first movie.
The source code is also all pis ... pii?
We'll probably never have a computer sophisticated enough to find an image of the universe inside pi, but it's still cool to think that when you divide a circle by its radius, you might get the code for an alternate world in which you're married to Mila Kunis.
Space May Have 11 Dimensions
What You Were Taught
You know that we live in a three-dimensional world. That means that we can move up and down, left and right, or back and forth. The most use you'll likely ever make of that knowledge is playing your 3DS and asking if there's a cheaper version of Gravity for people who don't like wearing those stupid glasses.
But Really ...
Science is just starting to hack away at the true nature of space, but the popular thinking of the moment is that space has 11 dimensions. That means that things can move up and down, left and right, back and forth, and then eight other directions that can just go fuck themselves for all we know or understand.
They're basically the silly straws of space-time.
No? You're dead set on trying to understand this? All right: The first step is to stop imagining "dimensions" the way that they have been explained to you by science fiction, where traveling to "another dimension" means stepping through a looking-glass and coming face-to-face with a Jerry O'Connell fighting some Nazis. Dimensions, as we're discussing them now, are just directions of movement. The nerdiest among you might know of time as the fourth dimension -- moving from past to future -- but that would still leave us seven dimensions short, and we've already talked about how we don't understand time. We're moving into Inception levels of ignorance, here.
See, the other dimensions are like ...
Like when you ...
So if boobs are the first three dimensions ...
OK, forget it. We can't think of a way to get you to imagine higher dimensions beyond those that we can perceive. Let's explain why through the only medium we can adequately communicate in: pop-culture analogies. In 1884, teacher Edwin Abbott wrote the novel Flatland, which is a story that takes place in a two-dimensional world. The inhabitants of Flatland can move back and forth or left and right, but they have no concept of up or down. The story deals with what happens when a three-dimensional person tries to communicate with one of the Flatland inhabitants. The 2D protagonist, a square, can't see the 3D stranger above him because he has no concept of up and down, so as far as he's concerned, the stranger is just a voice in his head.
In the same way, we have no idea about what's happening in the higher dimensions, because we can't see or even comprehend in those directions. But science suspects they exist because, like in Flatland, sometimes particles disappear from our universe and reappear elsewhere, a crazy phenomenon we call "quantum tunneling." Scientists suspect these unaccountable particles aren't "just, like ... dicks, man," but are instead traveling through a higher dimension to get to new places.
Or else just ducking out early to start the weekend.
The point to take away from all of this is that there might be higher-dimensional beings watching you masturbate, so, you know ... put on your game face and really swing for the fences.
Himanshu could be found occasionally blabbering something at the internet on Twitter.
Related Reading: Not done having your mind BLOWN? We've got a much longer list of the unexplained. And y'know what else Science can't explain? The Voynich Manuscript. More things lie beyond our ken: Star jelly is totally inexplicable.
Science can't explain Minecraft either.