If you want to annoy a scientist, just say the word “miracle.” That’s because most miracles aren’t exactly miraculous, per se. Every time a seemingly unexplainable event occurs, there's a strong chance that someone somewhere has put hours of blood, sweat, and tears into figuring out why.
However, this demystification of the world does not necessarily make it a duller and less interesting place – far from it. What makes the world so fascinating is what we learn about it. Besides, quite often, the truth is stranger than fiction anyway.
So, whether you take the view that we're raining on your parade or aiding you in your quest for knowledge, here’s a bunch of "miraculous" occurrences that turned out to be something way different.
The Oracle Of Delphi And Her Mad Prophecies
The Oracle of Delphi, the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, ancient Greece, was regularly touted for her abilities to foresee the future and often talked with the god Apollo. It turns out, the numerous women who took on the role of the Pythia, the high priestess, were probably tripping on hallucinogenic fumes.
A study from 2001 saw archaeologists head to the Delphic temple where these miraculous trances took place between 1,400 BCE to 381 CE. Just as people had previous speculated, the temple was located along a fissure in the bedrock that was seeping ethylene gas, a known narcotic that induces a euphoric trance-like state.
Weeping Virgin Mary Statues
Over the years and across the world, there have been dozens of reports of Virgin Mary statues weeping from their eyes. A lot of the time these weeping statues are often proven to be a hoax or practical joke designed to make a quick buck. In fact, many have even been declared fraudulent by Church officials.
However, the Catholic Church does actually accept one weeping Madonna as a miracle that happened in Siracusa, Sicily in 1953. Although Italian chemist Luigi Garlaschelli dispelled this notion in the mid-1990's, revealing this is a load of nonsense by offering his own explanation. He recreated this particular statue with similar materials and found that the glazed plaster allows water and humidity to be absorbed but prevents it from pouring out unless the most minuscule of scratches occur. In this case, water can gather in the crack then pour out in a tear shape.
As for reports of tears of blood, Dr Garlaschelli said: "Nowadays madonnas weep blood. In my opinion, this is because we now have color TV.''
Jesus Burnt Onto Toast
Jesus is everywhere, even, apparently, in your fish sticks. The face of Jesus Christ has been spotted on a silly amount of foods (at least 22 types of food by Buzzfeed’s last count up), from the ubiquitous burned toast and breakfast tacos to Messiah-shaped Cheetos.
This old urban legend seems to be a case of pareidolia, a disposition to find and recognize a relatable image, pattern, or (most often) a face in a meaningless image.
In his book, The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan argued that pareidolia probably originated as a survival technique. Particularly in instances of low-light, being able to easily pick up on a threat, such as an approaching face in the distance, could be life-saving. As such we became acutely-sensitive to spotting faces and other potentially recognizable visual stimuli. Sometimes, the old trick of the brain can have a minor misfire and we read into a meaningless image more than necessary, such as seeing Jesus's face on your fish stick.
Littlewood's Law Of Miracles
So, yes, there is usually a reasonable explanation behind supposedly inexplicable things. However, there’s one last thing to consider when hearing about miracles that links up with the super-interesting “law of truly large numbers.”
British mathematician JE Littlewood suggested that people should, statistically speaking, expect “one-in-a-million events” to occur around every 35 days. If you have ever had a profoundly weird "what are the chances of that?" experience, perhaps this is something you can relate to. Depending on a person's belief system, some might call these ultra-rare events a miracle. To others, it's a freak occurrence, luck, or perhaps an inevitable occurrence at some point in the universe's 13.8 billion year history. Keep being weird, world.