More often than not, science is a tedious process of checking, rechecking, cross-checking, and finally starting over from scratch. Throughout history, most important technological advances have occurred not with a “eureka!” moment, but with the slow, steady grinding away of researchers and academics. This allows us not only to hone in on the truth, but also to make predictions about what we may discover in the future.
These predictions are usually not completely accurate, and further research is required. This is how the process of science works: a theory is tested, problems with the theory are identified, and a new theory is proposed. Sometimes, however, the results are so surprising that researchers are left scratching their heads and struggling for an explanation. Here are some of the more surprising results from the past couple decades of research.
Starting with the Caveman in the Mirror
Neanderthals – our thick-browed, stooped-shouldered cousins, disappeared 30,000 years ago. They were a species doomed to extinction. Though they were very closely related to us, they failed to make any kind of art or use tools more advanced than sharp rocks and thrusting spears. No wonder then, that as our ancestors spread across the globe, Neanderthals vanished, obviously out-competed by their more intelligent and graceful relatives.
But that’s not the entire story. After careful comparison of the genome of modern humans with that of the Neanderthals, it appears that we share as much as 1-4% of our DNA with those distant relatives, indicating that they interbred with our ancestors. For a long time, scientists didn’t know whether to classify them as another species, or just a very odd subspecies of humanity. This new finding puts that debate to rest; biologically speaking, humans and Neanderthals were the same species because we are able to interbreed. Only modern Africans show no sign of Neanderthal genes in their genome, indicating that the two populations interbred after they left Africa. Interestingly, there is just as much Neanderthal DNA in areas where no Neanderthals ever lived as in places like Europe where the two populations lived side-by-side. This means that the interbreeding took place very early in our diffusion out of Africa, before we split into the various ethnic groups seen today.
The Pioneer of Anomalies
In 1972, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft was launched on its mission to study the planet Jupiter. It became the first spacecraft to cross the asteroid belt on July 15 of the same year. In 1973, Pioneer 11 was launched on a similar mission that would also take it to Saturn to study that planet as well. However, by 1980, something appeared to be going wrong. The spacecraft weren’t where they were supposed to be and were climbing out of the sun’s gravity well more slowly than expected. By 1994, NASA scientists were struggling to come up with an explanation, as the discrepancies between predicted and actual positions continued to grow until the spacecraft were out of position by many thousands of kilometers.
There is still no universally accepted explanation for this phenomenon which affects all craft we send into deep space. All known forces have been accounted for, yet there is a 8.74±1.33×10^−10 m/s^2 constant acceleration towards the sun. Explanations range from the mundane: measurement error; to the extraordinary: a new understanding of physics is required. Some say that our understanding of gravity is incomplete; that at the distances involved in these calculations gravity behaves differently than we understand here on Earth. However, this explanation ignores the fact that gravity acts exactly as we think it should regarding the planets in the outer solar system. Recently, a simpler explanation has gained traction: that thermal radiation pressure inherent in the spacecraft is somehow to blame.
This is Your Brain on Agriculture
By now, everyone knows the basic story of human evolution. Our ancestors clambered down from the trees, stretched their legs, began walking and running across the savannah, eventually started making tools, agriculture, roads, cities, etc. All along, our brains were increasing in size as they struggled to comprehend the changing landscape and increasingly complex social structures. This seems obvious, especially if we look at our close evolutionary relatives that are smarter than most animals but still nowhere near our level of intelligence.
Yet this seemingly obvious, common-sense observation is false. For the last 20,000 years, the size of our brains has actually been shrinking, in all populations everywhere on the globe. How could this possibly be, when 99% of our technological advances occurred during this time? This result is not only surprising, it seems counter-intuitive and impossible. However, the results are undeniable. If the trend continues at the same rate, in another 20,000 years our brains will have regressed to the size of Homo Erectus’.
So what could possibly be the cause of this? The past 20,000 years have born witness to many changes on our planet, namely: the climate has warmed and the population of human beings has exploded. Evolution isn’t a steady, improving process that makes organisms smarter and stronger each generation, but rather an economical process that adapts organisms to the conditions of their environment. As the climate warmed, larger brains and bodies became less efficient, and so natural selection may have favored people with smaller builds and smaller brains. However, there have been numerous periods of warming in our evolutionary past, and our brain size did not show the same decrease during those events. Alternatively, the explosion of the human population may have something to do with it. When the global population was small, tiny, isolated bands of humans needed to be self sufficient, and an individual needed to know how to perform all of the tasks necessary for survival. Additionally, as resources were scarce, only the most intelligent were able to survive until breeding age. They could not rely on a larger tribe or nation to take care of them in the event of a disaster, and there was very little social safety-net for a person that fell on hard times. As population densities grew, however, it was possible to divide up the labor and take care of the less fortunate. Now, individuals could focus on specific tasks, neglecting their knowledge of others.
This trend only intensified with the advent of agriculture and modern medicine, as there was always work for the less intelligent, and surplus food to feed them. This is known as the “idiocracy theory,” and fans of the movie Idiocracy will understand why. While this may seem rather bleak, and comes close to being an argument for eugenics, the news isn’t all bad: for the past 200 years or so, our brain size seems to be on the increase again. This indicates that perhaps its not evolution causing this trend, but nutrition, which has gotten much better in that time, but which was on the decline since the introduction of agriculture. The real cause will likely turn out to be a combination of factors, and researchers are constantly coming up with new theories.
Drug Users Want Decriminalization – And So Should Law Enforcement
If you want to keep people from doing something, make it illegal. This has been the principal behind our legal system for as long as it has existed. Ideally, laws reflect the values of that society; we value life so murder is illegal, we value property so theft is illegal, etc. The abuse of drugs seems like one of these simple issues, it obviously causes problems, and so it should be made illegal.
However, as we all know, making something illegal doesn’t stop people from doing it. People still murder and steal, despite the fact that they know it’s wrong and know it’s illegal. When the law becomes less about morals, and more about standards, you find even more people willing to break that law; for instance it would be difficult to find a single driver that doesn’t break the speed limit at some point during their commute. And people still abuse drugs, even though they know the consequences if they are caught. The United States has one of the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine abuse anywhere in the world despite having some of the most stringent anti-drug laws on the books.
That brings us to Portugal’s surprising experiment. In 2001, the small Atlantic nation decriminalized possession of all drugs, from marijuana to methamphetamine. Experts at the time predicted a disaster; Portugal would soon be drowning under hordes of junkies and “drug tourists.” Yet the experiment proved to be a success. Treating drug abusers as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue, Portugal now has one of the lowest rates of drug abuse in the West. Proportionally, more Americans have tried cocaine than Portuguese have tried marijuana.
The idea is that treating drug addicts as criminals only drives them underground, making it impossible for them to get treatment for their problem. Treating addiction as a health issue is not only more effective, it is cheaper than incarceration. This should be of particular interest to the United States which has some of the highest rates of drug abuse in the world and stringent drug laws that fuel terrible gang violence in Mexico. Based on the Portugal model, many addiction experts now believe that if the United States took an approach similar to Portugal, not only would the drug gangs lose their funding, but our shameful prison population would decrease to a reasonable number.
A Hole in the Universe
In June of 2001, The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) was launched into space in order to study the cosmic microwave background radiation. This is radiation left over from the Big Bang itself, and this map is the most complete picture of the early universe we have to date. The probe registers tiny fluctuations in the temperature of this radiation, which allows us to determine the positions of clumps of matter and energy at this early stage of the Universe’s life. This map is a series of “hot” and “cold” spots that relate these positions in two dimensions.
When going over the results, researchers found something anomalous in a region of sky in the constellation Eridanus: a cold spot that seemed much to large to be explained by natural fluctuations. This may not seem significant, but if the finding is accurate it represents a part of the universe devoid of matter and energy at least 500 million light-years across, and would by the largest structure ever observed. Such structures should not exist according to our current understanding of physics and our simulations of the large-scale evolution of the Universe. The discovery was later confirmed by the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. It is such a surprising find that it has lead one researcher to claim: “It is the unmistakable imprint of another universe beyond the edge of our own.” Her theory is that the hole was caused by quantum entanglement between our two universes before they were separated due to cosmic inflation. Other, less exciting theories, focus on measurement error and misinterpretation of the data.
Science continues to surprise us. The more we learn, the more we learn we need to learn. The universe is full of strange and surprising events and objects, many of which we can’t even imagine. The process of science is the exploration of these events, and the struggle to understand and make sense of them. Undoubtedly, we’re not always going to get the results that we expect, but that’s half the fun of science, and also when the most important discoveries are made. In the words of Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny…’”