Eight Simple Questions You Won’t Believe Science Can’t Answer

The field of science is capable of some amazing things, mostly because it’s filled with all the Albert Einsteins and Doogie Howsers the world has produced over the centuries. But it may shock you that some of the most mundane, everyday concepts are as big a mystery to scientists as they are to the average toddler.

In fact, although scientists have identified almost 2 million of the species we’ve got, estimates for the amount of species that are actually on the planet range from a measly 5 million up to a daunting 100 million. The reason for this supernova-sized room for error is that, no matter what method the scientists use to make their estimates, there’s always some amount of guesswork involved.

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“Anyone have a d10googol we can roll?”

One of the early estimates from 19th century taxonomists said that there were about 400,000 species on Earth, and seeing as how we’ve already discovered five times that many, it’s only logical to conclude there was some faulty sciencing involved there. In fact, the most recent estimate, which claims that that there’s less than 10 million species, is being heavily criticized by scientists. Hell, even the people who put out this estimate admitted publicly that they might be way off.

There are a few good reasons why the birds, bees, and bacteria remain woefully uncounted. First off, the research on species takes place mostly in the northern hemisphere, which remains more technologically advanced than the southern, so it’s very likely that places like Australia have yet to show us the complete horror of their fauna.

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Somewhere, deep in the outback, the fabled and terrible Murder Koala waits.

But the biggest reason that science is still shrugging its shoulders and making sad trumpet noises is that 99 percent of all living space is under the ocean, and humans have explored less than 10 percent of it (experts say we have better maps of the surface of Mars than of our own oceans). We discover new and horrible types of life there all the time!

Prosanta Chakrabarty
GAH!

#2. The Length of the U.S. Coastline (Or Any Coastline, For That Matter)

Of all the subjects we learned in high school, the one with the least amount of mystery was probably geography. The continents, rivers and mountains aren’t going anywhere. At least not very fast, they’re not. Sure, the fine points can get more complicated. Maybe the tallest mountain isn’t the one you think, and maybe the largest desert will surprise you, but even then, it’s all just a matter of committing definitions to memory and spewing them back to your teacher. It’s all freaking measurements! Surely the length of the United States coast isn’t something “up for debate.”

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What do you need besides a ruler?

Yet estimates vary wildly. The Central Intelligence Agency, for example, officially lists the length of the U.S. coast as around 12,380 miles. But another study came up with 29,093 miles. Then this study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (a U.S. government agency) came up with 95,471.

What the hell?

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“Somewhere around that second set of docks we found a pub and blew the whole damn count.”

You see, measuring coasts isn’t simple and indisputable, like measuring a straight line on a piece of paper. It’s complex and prone to wild exaggeration, like measuring your dong in the bathroom. The reason is that, depending on how much detail of a coast you want to measure, you’ll always get a different final outcome from someone who chose to take into account a different amount of detail. If you want to just take the rough outline of a coast, you can get a measurement like the CIA has. But when you get into the fine details of every little inlet and estuary, suddenly the numbers get much bigger as you calculate in all of these twists and turns.

Avsa, Wikipedia Commons
Keep zooming in, and this can literally continue for infinity.

And the thing about all those numbers is that they can all be adopted as “official” measurements by government agencies, and nobody would bat an eye. In fact, the disparity between coastline measurements is accepted and is a pretty well-known problem in geography dubbed the “coastline paradox.” This coastal conundrum comes from the fact that, no matter how much detail you choose to take into account in your measurement of a coastline, no matter how many of the zigs and zags you measure, there is always more detail to get. This paradoxically makes every single coastline of every single country infinitely long.

#1. How Gravity Works

Come on, it’s gravity. Is there any concept in the universe quite so basic? You throw shit up, it comes down again. Despite his textbook reputation, Newton didn’t discover gravity. It was discovered by the first fish ancestor who crawled onto land and found it had lost the ability to swim upward. What’s to understand?

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One aborted attempt at parkour and the subsequent ER visit can drum the basics into even the thickest skull.

Turns out there are four basic forces that hold the universe together, and out of these four, gravity is the only one that doesn’t make any sense. Specifically, how it can be so incredibly weak and incredibly strong at the same time. Gravity holds the entire universe together, and no matter how far out you travel, it never completely disappears. And yet, it is the weakest force in existence. To illustrate, you know when you bring two magnets near each other and they snap together? That force is actually 10^36 times stronger than gravity. Yeah, the technical term for that is “a big-ass order of magnitude” stronger.

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“Using the scale devised by Dr. R. J. Fuckton, of course.”

To add to the confusion, because all these other forces are controlled by their own particles, it stands to reason that gravity should have its own particles, too. But this hypothetical critter — the graviton — is basically the only one we haven’t found yet, unlike the particles that mediate a lot of the other important forces in nature, which have been altogether more cooperative.

But the mother of all baffling gravity mysteries is that, once you get down to the level of atoms and molecules and even smaller stuff, gravity just plain stops working. In fact, gravity is one of the biggest reasons why quantum physicists and real-world physicists have nothing to say to each other. We know more about what’s inside an atom than we do about why a ball comes back down when we throw it in the air. For all science knows, it’s because of ghosts.

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Ghosts are one of the four fundamental forces, along with poltergeists, unicorns and David Bow

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