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10 Scientific Mysteries We Don’t Fully Understand

by Michael Burnham
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Even in our high-tech, data-driven world, some things just don’t add up. Science has explained a lot, but every now and then, we stumble upon something that leaves even the experts scratching their heads. This list is all about those fascinating mysteries—puzzles that remain unsolved despite our best efforts to crack them.

From strange medical conditions to baffling physical phenomena, these mysteries remind us that there’s still so much we don’t know. They pop up in everyday life and the lab, making us question what we think we understand about the world around us. Each one is a little nudge to keep us humble and curious.

So, take a journey through these ten scientific enigmas. They might not have easy answers, but that’s what makes them so intriguing. Who knows? Maybe one day, with a bit of luck and a lot of research, we’ll finally solve them. Until then, they remain open questions, fueling our curiosity and driving us to explore the unknown.

Related: Top 10 Perfectly Serious Scientific and Technical Terms That Sound Silly

10 Disappearing Polymorphs

Polymorph – Chem Definition

Imagine a substance that can shift between different forms, each with its own unique properties. These are polymorphs, different crystalline structures of the same compound. The puzzling part? Some forms can vanish and reappear under certain conditions, baffling scientists. A prime example is the HIV drug ritonavir, which initially existed in a stable Form I. Unexpectedly, a more stable Form II emerged during manufacturing, making Form I unattainable with the same process.

This isn’t just a lab curiosity. The transformation from Form I to Form II in ritonavir disrupted its production, as Form II had different solubility and bioavailability properties, compromising the drug’s effectiveness. Researchers discovered that ball-mill grinding could consistently produce both forms, revealing that crystal size, shape, and molecular conformation influence these polymorphic transitions. This has significant implications for drug development and manufacturing.

Scientists continue to explore the mechanisms behind these transitions. Understanding how to control polymorph stability could lead to major advancements in pharmaceuticals and material science. For now, the mystery of disappearing polymorphs like ritonavir’s remains a captivating challenge in the scientific community.[1]

9 Spontaneous Human Combustion

DEMYSTIFIED: Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real? | Encyclopaedia Britannica

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) has long fascinated and puzzled people. It refers to the phenomenon where a person appears to burst into flames without any external ignition source. Historical cases, such as Matilda Rooney in 1885, show victims being incinerated while their surroundings remain untouched. SHC has been cited in literature and real-life reports, often involving victims who were alone and near flammable materials.

Modern forensic science suggests that the “wick effect” could explain SHC. In this process, a person’s clothing absorbs melted fat from their body, acting like a candle wick. This can lead to smoldering combustion that can burn a body almost completely while leaving the surrounding area relatively undamaged. Despite this plausible explanation, SHC remains a topic of intrigue and speculation.[2]

8 Neural Networks: The Vanishing and Exploding Gradient Problem

Vanishing & Exploding Gradient explained | A problem resulting from backpropagation

Neural networks have brought incredible advancements in AI, but they aren’t without their challenges. One major issue is the vanishing and exploding gradient problem. This happens during backpropagation when the gradients, which are used to update the network’s weights, either become too small or too large. When they vanish, learning slows to a crawl. When they explode, training can become unstable.

Vanishing gradients are a big issue in deep networks with many layers. As the gradients move backward through the network, they can shrink to nearly zero, making it hard for the early layers to learn. This is especially common with activation functions like sigmoid and tanh, which squeeze input values into small ranges. This makes the weight updates tiny, slowing down the learning process.

To tackle these problems, researchers use tricks like the ReLU activation function, which keeps gradients stronger, and batch normalization, which normalizes inputs. Gradient clipping is another technique that prevents gradients from getting too large. Despite these strategies, the vanishing and exploding gradient problems are still major hurdles in training deep neural networks.[3]

7 The Enigma of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis

Chronic and Progressive | Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis | MedscapeTV

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) is a mysterious and deadly lung disease that continues to baffle scientists and doctors alike. This progressive condition causes the lung tissue to become thickened and scarred over time, making breathing increasingly difficult. Despite extensive research, the exact cause of IPF remains unknown, which is particularly frustrating for those affected and their families. Unlike other forms of lung disease, IPF does not have a clear link to environmental factors, infections, or genetic mutations.

The symptoms of IPF often start subtly, with a persistent dry cough and shortness of breath, which are easily mistaken for other less severe conditions. As the disease progresses, it can lead to severe respiratory failure. Currently, there is no cure for IPF, and treatments are primarily focused on slowing the progression of the disease and managing symptoms. This enigma keeps researchers on their toes, pushing them to find a breakthrough that could offer hope to those suffering from this devastating illness.[4]

6 The Mystery of Acquired Savant Syndrome

How a Baseball Injury Made A Genius (Savant Syndrome)

Acquired Savant Syndrome is one of the most fascinating and perplexing phenomena in neuroscience. This rare condition occurs when a person suddenly develops extraordinary abilities in areas such as music, art, or mathematics, often after a traumatic brain injury or illness. Unlike congenital savants, who are born with their talents, individuals with acquired savant syndrome gain these skills unexpectedly, sometimes transforming their lives overnight.

What makes this syndrome so intriguing is the sudden onset of abilities in which the individual had no prior interest or training. For example, someone might wake up from a coma with the ability to play the piano flawlessly or create detailed, lifelike drawings. Scientists believe that these newfound talents might be due to the brain rewiring itself after injury, unlocking latent abilities that were previously dormant. However, the exact mechanisms behind this transformation remain a mystery.

Researchers are keen to understand how these changes occur, as it could offer insights into the untapped potential of the human brain. Discovering the secrets of acquired savant syndrome might not only help those affected by brain injuries but could also revolutionize our understanding of human cognitive capabilities. Until then, this phenomenon continues to captivate the imagination of both scientists and the public.[5]

5 The Intriguing World of Cymatic Patterns

Cymatics: Chladni Plate – Sound, Vibration and Sand

Cymatics is the study of visible sound vibrations, revealing intricate and mesmerizing patterns formed by sound waves on various mediums like sand, water, or metal plates. These patterns, known as cymatic patterns, are created when particles arrange themselves into geometric shapes in response to specific frequencies. The phenomenon was first observed by Ernst Chladni in the 18th century, using a metal plate covered in sand. When he ran a violin bow along the edge of the plate, the sand moved into distinct patterns, now known as Chladni figures.

What makes cymatic patterns so fascinating is their apparent order and complexity, which emerge from seemingly chaotic sound vibrations. Different frequencies produce different patterns, suggesting a deep connection between sound and physical form. Researchers and artists alike are captivated by these patterns, exploring their potential applications in fields ranging from acoustic engineering to art and therapy. Despite extensive study, the exact mechanisms that govern the formation of these patterns remain a subject of ongoing research and curiosity.[6]

4 The Quest for Metallic Hydrogen

Why Metallic Hydrogen Is the Holy Grail of High Pressure Physics

Metallic hydrogen is a theoretical state of hydrogen that, under extreme pressure, is predicted to exhibit metallic properties, such as electrical conductivity. Since the 1930s, scientists have been fascinated by the possibility of creating this elusive material. In 2017, researchers at Harvard University claimed to have produced metallic hydrogen by subjecting hydrogen to pressures over 400 gigapascals. However, the sample was lost before it could be verified, leaving the scientific community in suspense.

The potential applications of metallic hydrogen are vast and revolutionary. It could serve as a room-temperature superconductor, dramatically improving the efficiency of electrical systems, or as a powerful rocket fuel, significantly advancing space exploration capabilities. However, replicating the conditions necessary to produce and stabilize metallic hydrogen remains a formidable challenge.

The mystery of whether metallic hydrogen can be reliably created and harnessed continues to drive intense research efforts and fuels the imagination of scientists worldwide.[7]

3 The Puzzling Placebo Effect

How The Placebo Effect Tricks Your Brain

The placebo effect is a strange and fascinating phenomenon where people experience tangible improvements in their health after taking a treatment that has no actual therapeutic value, like a sugar pill. This effect has been seen in all sorts of conditions, from pain relief to better mood and even symptoms of chronic illnesses. What’s so interesting about the placebo effect is how it shows the powerful connection between the mind and body, proving that our beliefs and expectations can significantly influence our physical health.

Even though it’s well-documented, scientists still don’t fully understand how the placebo effect works. Studies have shown that the brain can release natural painkillers, like endorphins, in response to a placebo. Factors such as a patient’s expectations and the doctor-patient relationship also play a big part. However, the fact that the placebo effect varies so much between individuals and conditions makes it a tough puzzle to crack.

The placebo effect challenges our traditional views on medical treatments and raises important questions about how we can use the mind’s power to boost healing. It also brings up ethical questions about the use of placebos in medicine. As researchers dig deeper into this mysterious effect, it becomes clear that the mind’s role in health is profound and still not fully understood.[8]

2 The Enigma of Quantum Tunneling

What is Quantum Tunneling, Exactly?

Quantum tunneling is one of the strangest and most mind-boggling phenomena in physics. It occurs when a particle passes through a barrier that, according to classical physics, it shouldn’t be able to cross. Imagine throwing a ball at a wall and having it appear on the other side without breaking the wall—that’s quantum tunneling in a nutshell. This phenomenon plays a crucial role in many processes, including the fusion reactions that power the sun and the operation of modern electronic devices like transistors and tunnel diodes.

Despite its importance, the exact mechanics of quantum tunneling remain deeply mysterious. According to quantum mechanics, particles like electrons have a probability wave that allows them to exist in multiple states at once. This wave can “leak” through barriers, giving the particle a chance to appear on the other side. The implications of quantum tunneling challenge our understanding of reality and push the boundaries of how we think about the nature of matter and energy.

Researchers continue to explore the depths of this phenomenon, aiming to harness its potential for future technologies and to deepen our grasp of the quantum world. Quantum tunneling remains a fascinating enigma, illustrating the profound and often perplexing nature of the universe.[9]

1 Spontaneous Regression of Cancer with Fasting

Spontaneous Regression of Cancer with Fasting

One of the most astonishing and perplexing medical phenomena is the spontaneous regression of cancer. This rare event occurs when a malignant tumor shrinks or completely disappears without conventional treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation. While various factors might contribute to spontaneous regression, fasting has emerged as a particularly intriguing potential trigger. Some case studies suggest that prolonged fasting or significant dietary changes can lead to unexpected tumor reduction.

The exact mechanisms behind this phenomenon remain unclear, but theories abound. One hypothesis is that fasting induces a state of autophagy, where the body starts to clean out damaged cells and regenerate healthier ones. This process might selectively target cancer cells, which are more vulnerable to stress than normal cells.

Additionally, fasting can lower insulin and glucose levels, potentially starving cancer cells that rely heavily on these nutrients for growth. Despite these promising insights, spontaneous regression with fasting is still a medical mystery that requires much more research to understand fully.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen