spaceSpace and Physics

Six Mysteries Solved By Science

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Lisa Winter

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49 Six Mysteries Solved By Science
Danny Sullivan via flickr

While there are some mysteries that scientists have not yet unraveled, there are some myths and legends that seem to persist even after an explanation has been provided. 

Bermuda Triangle


The Bermuda Triangle is an area that represents the region of the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Miami, Florida. It became shrouded in mystery after World War II due to claims that ships and planes had gone missing under mysterious circumstances, without leaving a trace. 

The mystery was solved in 1975 when Larry Kusche, a research librarian at Arizona State University, discovered that some of the claims about disappearances were overblown or completely false. He found that the region doesn’t have an unusual number of shipwrecks or plane crashes compared to any other area experiencing similar traffic. However, the Gulf Stream current is strong enough to disperse any evidence of fallen ships or planes, which likely added to the folklore of the area.

Moving Rocks in Death Valley

The Racetrack Playa in California’s Death Valley is striped with hundreds of carved-out trails from large rocks, even though nobody had pushed them or witnessed the rocks moving. Scientists solved the mystery of these traveling rocks by fitting them with GPS units, using time-lapse cameras, and studying weather in the playa. 


Though Death Valley is notorious for blistering summertime heat, winter is mild and rain can collect to form a lake several centimeters deep. When the temperature drops overnight, the water freezes into thin sheets of ice. The ice is warmed by the sun the next morning, breaking it into small plates. When one of these plates is under a rock, the wind and water flow push the rock very slowly, traveling about 224 meters (730 ft) during the winter season. This motion makes a trail in the mud which later dries to record evidence of the rock’s journey. 

Image credit: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith via flickr

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous human combustion allegedly involves someone burning to death from flames that do not have an obvious external source. This phenomenon was first described in the 1600s and generally results in the head and torso being reduced to ash.

Investigations into these claims have shown that many of them are massively blown out of proportion. As the body is mostly water, it seems very unlikely that it would burst into flames. If it were possible, it would likely happen much more often. Instead, the most likely explanation is that the clothing of these victims were set on fire from a small source, like a candle or cigarette. Unable to move and put out the flame due to age or physical condition, the clothing acts like a wick. As the skin is broken, the body fat burns to fuel the fire.


Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism was a computing device that was handcrafted by the Greeks. The device was lost in an ancient shipwreck and was discovered in 1900, puzzling researchers about its purpose and how such a complex machine was crafted in that time.

Over the years, scientists have chipped away at its mysteries. Carbon dating revealed that the ship sank in 60 BCE. Though the mechanism was over 2,000 years old, it seemed to be 1,000 years ahead of its time. Analysis revealed the two-sided mechanism used 30 bronze gears to operate three clock-like dials that could calculate the relative positions of the moon, sun, and first six planets for any given date. The device also accounted for irregular and elliptical orbits, and even predicted solar and lunar eclipses.

2007 reproduction of the device. Image credit: Mogi Vicentini via Wikimedia Commons

Lost City of Atlantis


The greatest mystery of the city of Atlantis, it turns out, is how it ever grew to be a mystery in the first place. Depicted as a utopian island civilization that existed about 9000 BCE, the abundant natural resources made the people turn greedy and power hungry. Eventually, they were punished by Zeus and Poseidon, and the city was cast to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Atlantis was first described in the Greek philosopher Plato’s dialogue Timeas around 360 BCE. The tale was meant to be a thought exercise regarding power and corruption.

Over the years, some dismissed that Atlantis was a mere hypothetical fable and began to actually believe in its existence. Though it makes for fun TV and movies, some claim to have found evidence of the city in all parts of the world, which is about on par with someone claiming to have found evidence of Narnia.


Stonehenge is comprised of a circle of stacked stones located in what is now a remote area in Wiltshire, England. Carbon dating suggests that the structure was made between 3000-2000 BCE, which has raised questions about how such advanced architecture could have been constructed with the technology of the day. Many assumed that Stonehenge must have been the product of slave labor or even required extraterrestrial help to move the stones into place. 


Wally Wallington, a carpenter from Michigan, thwarted these claims when he built a Stonehenge replica in his backyard by himself, using only technology available to the people at the time. If one man can do it by himself, a group of innovative builders at the time would have made quick work of the existing monument and the surrounding structures that have been lost over time.

While there are still mysteries about the cultural significance and use of the Stonehenge monument, it turns out that it isn’t completely surprising that it was built in the first place.

Image credit: Airwolfhound via flickr

[Header image credit: Danny Sullivan via flickr]


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