Science provides theories and methods for testing the truths of the universe, and for much of human civilization, it has not only helped us make sense of our world but also pushed us to new heights of innovation. Yet, there are some artifacts, events, and behaviors – including even the direction that cows turn while grazing in fields – that stump the smartest of scientists.
When faced with the strangest of the strange, there is little one can do but shrug – and marvel at the wonders of life.
1. The Antikythera Mechanism (Above)
This astronomical mechanism was found broken into several pieces as part of a shipwreck near Greece from around 100 BC. So far, it consists of a single encrusted piece broken up into three major pieces and many more smaller ones. It contains gears and mechanisms far ahead of its time, such that no one can agree upon its origins. Fundamentally, it represents one of the first analog computers known with a complexity that indicates unknown predecessors and construction reliant upon Greek theories. However, its calculations rely upon Corinthian measurements, and it could just as easily originate from the Greek city of Pergamon, home of the Library of Pergamum, or the island and engineering center of Rhodes.
No matter its origin, what was its purpose? Even as an astronomical instrument, that remains mysterious, as many of the laws of heavenly movement were not fully established in this period. Perhaps, with more parts, the solution will become clear, but, for now, we can only guess.
2. The Voynich Manuscript
This illustrated codex is hand-written in a writing system found nowhere else with text written left to right as accompanied by stylized illustrations and diagrams. Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer, bought the manuscript in 1912, but its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early 15th century of the Italian Renaissance. Its contents seem to be a pharmacopoeia or collection of chapters on early modern medicine. The book has an organized, consistent script that no linguists, codebreakers, cryptographers, mathematicians, or otherwise have been able to break.
Is it real or possibly made-up? Does it require a key? Is it a text channeled from the divine and so incomprehensible? Experts have pointed to East and Central Asian families, as well as certain North Germanic dialects that the writing resembles. Part of the problem is that the book was likely remade several times, with an original page count of 272 pages rather than the current 240, as well as a different page order, binding, and covers. To get a closer look, you’ll have to visit Yale University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
3. Magnetic Cows
Farmers long ago noticed that livestock both gather in large herds and face in the same direction when grazing. Folk wisdom explains such behavior by noting that these animals stand perpendicular to the sun’s rays to absorb the cool morning sun and in the direction of strong winds to avoid getting chilled. However, such animals’ alignment stays the same no matter the weather conditions, lining up in north-south lines. A recent study used thousands of Google Earth satellite images to look at over 8,500 individual animals of different breeds in more than 300 sites, at different times of day, and at different altitudes. They found that not only do cows and deer stand along magnetic poles, but they do so whether grazing or resting and regardless of the weather.
So why do they do it? Like flies, bees, and goldfish, it may be that they are using magnetic fields as a way to orient themselves when traveling or making a getaway. It may also be that facing north and south provides unforeseen health benefits. For the time being, all we can do is wonder.
4. The Reason for Sleep
As humans, we tend to take our bodies for granted, from the brain’s elasticity to the essential state of sleep. Scientists understand that the body is regulated by the circadian clock, but the exact reasons are not entirely clear. While we sleep, our bodies get their regular maintenance, including tissue repair and otherwise. But why do we spend a third of our lives asleep when many other organisms do not?
Some researchers argue that sleep may have evolved as we gained the ability to hide from predators, while those unable to rest have to regenerate in other ways. However, others point out that sleep helps us survive by keeping us out of vulnerable situations like darkness, and certain scientists even point to energy conservation from reducing individual energy use. More importantly, sleep restores our bodies and helps maintain complex brain structures. No one theory covers it all, so, until scientists can figure out which theories work, the best thing we can each do is – sleep.
5. How did Life Start?
Although we have long wondered where life began on planet Earth, it remains unclear when and how exactly it started. Much like the basic biological process of sleep, many theories are needed to help us understand this question. The Primordial Soup model suggests that nutrient-rich Earth led to the formation of increasingly-complex molecules that naturally led to the creation of life in deep ocean vents, clay, and ice. While some models place metabolism first, explaining that reactions evolved before genetic molecules, others argue that the first living organisms were genes who catalyzed their own replication. Although DNA is the basis for life now, it’s also possible that RNA may have dominated early lifeforms, and other basic forms or nucleic acids could have once existed. Another, less common theory is the Last Universal Common Ancestor model, which posits that all life on earth has one ancestor who lived 2 billion years ago. Some scientists believe in panspermia, or the notion that microbial life was carried to Earth by other celestial bodies like comets, but then where did life come from?
So many mysteries remain, and these are just some of the more compelling or strange ones. However, we should not take them or the recognition of the limits of human intelligence for granted. When something as essential to our everyday lives as sleep remains a mystery, it’s important to appreciate and accept the un-knowable as an important part of living on our planet Earth.
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