Saturday, February 13, 2010

7 More things that baffle scientists

Author Michael Brooks has already explored 13 anomalies that puzzle the best minds in science. But, he says, there are plenty more where they came from. Here are a few to be going on with:

1. The flyby problem
When scientists send their spacecraft across the universe, they save fuel by performing “slingshot fly-bys”. This is where, rather than firing up the thrusters, the craft changes its trajectory by harnessing the enormous gravitational pull of a planet. However, this trick has had an unexpected side-effect: it seems to produce a change in speed that no one can account for. In 1998, for example, NASA's NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft had its speed boosted by an additional 13.5 millimetres per second. There are many examples of this, but no explanation – which raises the tantalising possibility that it could be a sign that a whole new branch of physics is waiting to be discovered.

2. Morgellons Disease
Morgellon’s disease report extreme tiredness, itches and rashes, and fibres growing out from their skin. The official line is that this is a mental illness, however: the medical literature has Morgellons down as “unexplained dermopathy” or "delusional parasitosis". Though it was described by an English doctor 300 years ago, there were no documented cases until one 2002. Since then, however, reportings of the disease have boomed. Many researchers put this down to hypochondriacs reading about the disease on the internet.

3. The lithium anomaly
Cosmologists are getting a little depressed about lithium. They have good theories to explain which atoms were created when, and in what quantities , but lithium doesn’t fit. The universe’s entire stock of lithium atoms, some of which are sitting inside your mobile phone battery, were made in the first five minutes after the big bang. But the scientists’ stock check has thrown up an anomaly. The amount of hydrogen and helium is bang on, but lithium is way off. Lithium exists in various forms, known as isotopes, and it turns out that the universe contains only about one-third of the lithium-7 isotopes that should be out there. Even worse, there is 1000 times too much lithium-6. The bottom line? The history of the universe may require a re-write.

4. The bloop
During the cold war, the US government littered the world’s oceans with an array of underwater microphones, or hydrophones, to detect submarines. The hydrophones are still working, and have picked up some worrying noises. One sounded like it might have been made by an animal, but analysis of the acoustics revealed that the animal would have had to be far bigger than the biggest whale. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration call this unexplained sound “The Bloop” . There are hundreds of unexplained noises from the ocean, it turns out. If you go down to the depths today, be sure of a big surprise.

5. Axis of evil
The universe is meant to be “isotropic”, which means it looks pretty much the same whichever way you are facing. Unfortunately, the cosmic microwave background radiation [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmic_microwave_background_radiation], which fills all of space, didn’t get the memo. Its hot and cold spots are meant to be randomly distributed, but there seems to be a pattern that could be used to give the universe a “this way” and “that way” characteristic, just as a piece of wood has a grain. This is bad because we don’t yet have the mathematical skill to deal with a universe where one direction is different to another. No wonder cosmologists refer to this cosmic alignment as the “axis of evil”.

6. Hybrid creatures
The starfish Luidia sarsi lives an odd life. First it’s a larva with a tiny starfish inside. Then the starfish grows, and leaves the larva: one life has become two. The sea squirt genome shows it is the result of a fusion of two completely different creatures, defying all the usual tenets of biology. It seems that evolution has been trying out a few things. Underwater, eggs and sperm often get squirted out and carried away from where they are supposed to be, leaving them free to try conception with the “wrong” partner. Despite the fact that evolution says this isn’t meant to work, it seems that, occasionally, it does. It’s not just in the ocean, either: at least ten per cent of plant species came from similar processes. Biologists now have a whole new mess to clear up.

7. Dark flow
There’s something huge out there in space, and it is taking our stars away. Clusters of galaxies are moving at 1000 km/h towards a patch of sky between the Centaurus and Vela constellations. The best explanation for this “dark flow” is the gravitational attraction of a massive structure beyond the edge of the visible universe. This is another blow to our view of things – everything is meant to be roughly the same everywhere, so why haven’t we got something this big in our patch?
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