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Seemingly Simple Questions Nobody Can Answer

by Mark Oliver
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Sometimes it feels like scientists are getting pretty close to solving every mystery there is. We have theories on wormholes, dark matter, the beginning of the universe, and a whole map of how single-celled organisms evolved into human beings. We’ve solved some mysteries so complex that it boggles the mind to even think about them. Sometimes, it seems like there’s an answer to almost any question you can imagine.

But as it turns out, we don’t quite have everything figured out. There are extremely simple questions that nobody’s been able to figure out how to answer—some that sound so simple and obvious that you’d almost feel stupid asking them in the first place.

10 Why Is the Alphabet in That Order?

For all the time we spend teaching kindergartners the order of the alphabet, we don’t actually know what the order is for. Sure, we’ve made a cute song out of it, and we use it to sort things—but nobody actually knows why we started putting the letters of the alphabet in that order in the first place.

The only thing we know for sure that the alphabet has been in the order it is for a really, really long time. It’s believed that alphabetical order was created sometime between the 19th and 15th centuries BC.[1] That means it’s older than the English language. A lot older, in fact.

It was probably created by Canaanites living in Egypt, then spread and evolved. Their language was adapted into the Phoenician alphabet, which was adapted into the Greek alphabet, and then into the Latin alphabet, and so on until English came around. Every time a new language came into being, they more or less kept the alphabet in the same order. Some added a few letters or pulled a few out, but overall, the order stayed pretty much the same.

So, somebody came up the order about 4,000 years ago, and though we’ve been teaching it to kids ever since, nobody remembers why we created it in the first place.

9 Why Does Lightning Strike?

Just because your eighth-grade science teacher pretended he knew the answer to this one doesn’t mean he really did. For all the time we’ve spent tying keys to kites and flying them through the sky, lightning strikes are still a total mystery. As far as we can tell, they shouldn’t happen.

We understand a lot of the processes involved. We know that warm air rises, cools, and forms a cloud. And we know that when those clouds get bigger, they can become thunderclouds. And we know that they can build up 100 million volts of electricity that blast down to the ground with a heat four times hotter than the surface of the Sun.

But you might have noticed that’s there a pretty major step missing there: How in the hell did that little cloud get a death ray that rains down hellfire from above?

Based on what we know about electricity, it shouldn’t really be possible. The electrical field in a thunderstorm is about ten times smaller than the field you’d need to create a lightning bolt—so we don’t really understand where these death bolts are coming from.[2]

There are theories, of course. Some think that ice particles bump into each other and build up an electric charge. Some think that solar rays are involved. And some have suggested that the lightning bolts may be thrown down by Zeus when he fights with Hera. In the interest of good science, we shouldn’t rule out any theory until we know for sure.

8 Why Do Cats Purr?

Whether it’s a big cat or a small house cat, all felines seem to purr. They seem to purr in many different situations, such as: when they are pet by humans, nurse their kittens, or are stressed. This means it seems that cats purr both when they’re happy and upset, which makes it hard to know its true origins. One possibility is that it promotes bone growth. Purring contains sound frequencies within the 25- to the 150-Hertz range, and sounds in this range have been shown to improve bone density and promote healing. Because cats conserve energy by sleeping for long periods, purring may be a low-energy way to keep muscles and bones healthy without actually using them.

Part of the mystery around the purr is that we often only notice cats purring when we tickle them in places that they like to be tickled—their bellies, ears, and neck. Yet, they also purr when we’re not around, and the extent of that purring varies between individuals. All cats are different, some never purr, and some will purr constantly.

Cats begin purring when they are a few days old, which helps their mothers locate them for feeding time. This may persist with some adult cats who purr as they feed – or who purr beforehand as they try and convince a human it’s dinner time. Some will purr loudly when they are cautiously investigating new environments. Cats may also purr after they’ve been startled or after stressful episodes like being chased by a dog.[3]

Ultimately, the quest to define the meaning of a purr may benefit from getting to know cats’ body language better—from the periscope tail of a friendly cat in a sociable mood to the wide eyes and bent-back whiskers of a cat in fight mode. And the purr may not just be of benefit to the cats themselves. Petting a cat has long been seen as a form of stress relief—cat ownership could cut the risk of stroke or heart disease by as much one-third. Those same frequencies cats purr at might also be doing good to us as well.

7 How Many Muscles Do We Have?

A healthy adult human body has 206 bones, 78 organs, and a whole bunch of muscles that you’d think, by now, somebody would have counted. Believe it or not, though, nobody is entirely sure exactly how many muscles we have. We know it’s somewhere around 700 skeletal muscles—but the actual number could be anywhere from 640 to 850.

The problem is that some muscles in our bodies are so complex that they might actually be two different muscles. Nobody can agree on how many muscles they’re looking at when they see these complex ones, so different medical experts have different answers.

Even if they did agree, we keep finding people who don’t fit the norm. Some people have extra muscles on their bodies, and others have weird variations nobody was expecting.

So, the answer, for now, is that we have a bunch. Or, as one writer very scientifically put it, “about 700 [ . . . ] including roughly 400 that no one cares about.”[4]

6 Why Do Placebos Work?

As long as people believe they’re taking medicine, it’ll actually work. It’s an incredible fact about how the human mind works. The placebo effect has such a massive impact on our health that new medicines have to be tested against sugar pills to prove they really work. But the weird thing we don’t talk about is that we don’t actually have any clue why those sugar pills work in the first place.

We definitely know it has something to do with the mind. We know that red placebos work better than white ones; we know that placebos handed out by doctors in white coats work better than placebos handed out by assistants. And we know that the effect can be absurdly powerful. In fact, in some extreme cases, placebos have been as powerful in relieving pain as morphine.

But things get a bit weirder than that. One study found that placebos even work on people who know they are taking placebos.[5] The doctors told them they were getting fake sugar pills that didn’t do anything, and the pills still made an “astronomical” difference on their recovery.

But we still don’t know why they work. For some reason, we can trick our brains into shutting off pain—and we have no idea why.

5 Why Can’t We Walk in a Straight Line With Our Eyes Closed?

Try this: Go out to a park, put on a blindfold, and try to walk in a straight line. When you take your blindfold off, you’ll discover something strange, other than that your wallet’s now missing. No matter how careful you were, most people will end up spinning around in circles if they don’t have a clear target to walk toward, and nobody knows why.

Scientists have done multiple experiments on this effect, watching how people walk visually and even mapping out how they move with GPS. They’ve learned a few things: We know that the darker the sky is, the more people spin in circles, but we still don’t know why it happens.

There are certainly theories. Some scientists have speculated that it’s because of brain dominance, and others think it’s due to differences in the lengths of our legs—but the only thing experiments have been able to prove for sure is that every theory we’ve ever come up with is definitely wrong.[6]

4 Why Does Anesthesia Work?

As confident as your anesthesiologist might look when he puts you under, secretly, he has no idea why the stuff he’s stuffing into your body works. We know that anesthesia can knock people unconscious, and we use it freely—but we have no idea what it actually does.[7]

The problem, really, is that we can’t truly understand how anesthesia knocks people unconscious until we understand what consciousness actually is. It’s a weird concept to think about, but we’re trying to answer how consciousness gets turned off, and it’s hard to understand how something gets turned off when you don’t know what it is in the first place.

There are theories. Some think it disrupts synchrony between different areas of the cortex. Others think it causes quantum vibrations in microtubules. And a far larger group is fairly certain that if they nod and try to look serious, people will think that they know what these words mean.

3 Why Are People Left- or Right-Handed?

Around ten percent of people are left-handed. You can try to make them do things with their right hands, but unless you’re willing to go into some 15th-century levels of brutality, they’re going to prefer using their left hands for pretty well everything, which is one of those things everyone knows, but nobody really understands.[8]

It’s not just the left-handed people who are strange—it’s weird that we’re born preferring any hand at all. Scientists actually have no idea why the human race isn’t a full species of ambidextrous people. After all, most animals seem to be ambidextrous, so what’s going on with us?

The first theory was that it has something to do with language skills. For the brain, language and motor skills are the most energy-intensive activities; neuroscientists noticed that the brain seems to handle these in the same places. Most people handle language in the left hemisphere, so they figured motor skills got grouped in when we started talking.

The problem with that theory was that it didn’t really explain left-handed people. The overwhelming majority of left-handed people process language in the left hemisphere just like right-handed people. So if that’s the answer, why are they left-handed?

And new research is starting to suggest that gorillas and chimpanzees might be typically right-handed, too. All we know for sure is that we started treating one of our hands like it was more or less useless at some point in our evolution, and for some reason, we stuck with it.

2 How Do Bicycles Work?

Bicycles are weird when you think about them. They only have two wheels, and they fall when they’re stationary, but for some reason, when they start moving, they stay up. It’s one of those weird mysteries of science that we just kind of accept, trusting that scientists know what they’re doing and that we’re not all riding around on death traps that could collapse on us at any moment.

But the thing is, they don’t know. Scientists have no idea how bicycles work—even though the invention has been around since 1818.

One group tried studying how bicycles work by using the techniques we use to explain how airplanes fly.[9] That’s a baffling concept because it means that we have to rely on our understanding of how to make massive metal birds fly thousands of feet into the air to figure out how small children ride bicycles.

Some of the ways they’ve tried to tackle the problem just make the question even weirder. One scientist tried to design an unrideable bicycle, but every one he made still worked, which means that not only are we unable to explain why they work, but we can’t even figure out how to make them stop working.

1 Why Do We Yawn?

Everybody yawns. It’s not even just humans who do it—most animals yawn, too. But not matter how universal yawning might be, we have absolutely no idea why we do it.[10]

People have been trying to figure out why we yawn since the fourth century BC. Hippocrates suggested that it might be to get rid of “bad air” and take in “good air.” Today, most people think it decreases carbon dioxide and increases oxygen levels in the blood, which means the same thing but makes you sound a lot smarter.

The problem with this explanation, though, is that it doesn’t really explain why we yawn when we’re tired. The logical explanation is that it has to do with the brain, but yawning doesn’t really seem to change the oxygen levels in the brain.

So why are we doing it? Why don’t we yawn when we really need that extra oxygen? Why don’t we yawn when we exercise?

It doesn’t really make any sense, and we don’t really have a clear answer yet. As it turns out, that’s the case for a lot of things. We have our theories, but the truth is that there are many aspects of the universe we just don’t understand.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Mark Oliver

Mark Oliver is a regular contributor to Listverse. His writing also appears on a number of other sites, including The Onion's StarWipe and His website is regularly updated with everything he writes.

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