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Mysteries and Scientific Advances

How Solving Mysteries Can Lead to Scientific Advances

Throughout history, mysterious events have inspired scientists and inventors (and the just plain curious) to try to find answers. And once in a great while, a mystery has started an investigation that's led to an even bigger reward: an advance so big that it's changed the direction of science.

Each of the following cases started with a mystery. By the time these "detectives" had finished their research, they not only had solved the mystery—they'd also made a contribution to science and society.

The Mystery: Solar and Lunar Eclipses
The Scientific Advance: The theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

For most of human history, people thought that the Earth was the center of the universe and that the smaller Sun and Moon revolved around it—and that anybody who said otherwise was either crazy or evil. Heavenly occurrences like eclipses were signs from the gods, and that was that. The Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos, born about 310 BC, wasn't crazy or evil—just curious.

He started tracking the movements of the Sun and the Moon in both solar and lunar eclipses, and gathered enough data to advance the theory that not only was the Sun much larger than the Earth, but that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. He wrote it all down in a report he called "On the sizes and distances of the Sun and the Moon."

Even though his findings weren’t accurate, he does get the credit for being first to suggest that the Sun was the center of the universe. The much more famous astronomer Copernicus usually gets the credit for the theory, but Aristarchus said it first, nearly 2,000 years earlier.


The Mystery: How birds fly
The Scientific Advance: The invention of the airplane

Flying machine
(Click for a larger image.) Image courtesy of the Franklin Institute Science Museum.

In the late 1800s, Orville and Wilbur Wright were trying to build a flying machine. They already had some information to work with. They knew that wings could lift people so they could glide through the air (like people still do when they go hang-gliding). And someone had already invented a craft that was propelled into the air by a steam engine.

But that wasn't good enough for the Wright brothers. They wanted to build an aircraft that could take off, turn, and land safelythat a pilot could control completely.

They found the answer in how birds fly. They watched pigeons in flight and noticed that the birds kept adjusting the positions of their wings: When a pigeon wanted to turn, it lifted the front edge of one wing while tilting the edge of the other wing down. It reversed the process when it wanted to turn the opposite way.

They immediately started working on an aircraft wing that could twist and turn like a bird's. One day, after Wilbur took a bicycle inner tube out of a long cardboard box, he noticed that by twisting the ends of the box in opposite directions he could make the edges of the box twist like the pigeons' wings. If they could make a flexible wing that could operate like this, they just might solve the problem.

They tested the idea on a glider first. But they didn't have much luck until they took into account the movement and speed of the wind. They worked on the problem until they got it just "Wright." The rest is aviation history.


The Mystery: A melted chocolate bar.
The Scientific Advance: Microwave cooking.

In 1946, an engineer named Dr. Percy Spencer was working in his company's lab, testing a magnetron tube. (The magnetron had been invented six years earlier in England and used as radar defense against the Germans in World War II.)

Dr. Spencer decided he needed a snack, so he reached into his pocket to retrieve a chocolate bar he'd stashed there earlier. The chocolate had melted to a gooey mess. Spencer knew that microwaves generated heat, but the strange thing was that he hadn't felt the heat that had melted the chocolate.

Like any good scientist, Dr. Spencer forgot about the mess in his pocket and started running tests to find out what was going on. First, he put some popcorn near the tube. And pretty soon, popcorn was popping all over the place. The next morning, when an egg exploded during a similar experiment, Spencer realized that the magnetron had cooked the egg from the inside out; the pressure inside the shell had caused it to burst.

Spencer's company, Raytheon, took his discovery and soon after introduced the first microwave oven. It cost thousands of dollars and was as big as a refrigerator. Since then, of course, microwaves have gotten a lot smaller and much less expensive.

The Mystery: A cancer of the lymphatic system found only among certain African children.
The Scientific Advance: The first link established between viruses and cancers.

In 1947, Great Britain put Dr. Denis Burkitt in charge of health care for the African nation of Uganda. After about 10 years in service there, Dr. Burkitt began to notice an unusually high incidence of sores on the mouths and faces of the Ugandan children. He diagnosed the sores as lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. But he wanted to know why it was so common in Uganda and, as far as he knew, so rare in other places.

Working with a research grant of just $75, he devised a questionnaire that he mailed out to other African hospitals to try to see how widespread the disease was. His findings were astounding: the disease occurred mostly around the equator, between the latitudes 10 S and 10 N. This, of course, raised yet another questionwhy?

Dr. Burkitt spent about $1,000 putting together a safari (that's what they call an expedition in Africa) to visit the areas where the disease was so prevalent. As a result, he was able to create a "map" of the occurrence of the disease. Once he did that, he saw that it directly coincided with the map of endemic malaria, a much more common tropical disease. It turned out that the children who had lymphoma also had malaria, and that the malaria was suppressing their immune system, allowing a normally inactive microbe (which later came to be called the Epstein-Barr virus) to run rampant.

Dr. Denis Burkittat the ridiculously low research cost of $1,075had established the first link between viruses and cancer.

The Mystery: Background noise on radio equipment.
The Scientific Advance: The only real evidence so far to support the Big Bang theory.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson
Image courtesy of Lucent Technologies ©2002

In 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were tuning a powerful horn antenna used for sending and receiving microwave signals. But they were having a problem. A constant low-level static was disrupting their reception. They checked their equipment, but couldn't find any evidence of malfunction. They tried pointing the antenna in different directions, but the noise persisted.

As the two radio astronomers continued to investigate, they started to realize that they had stumbled onto something huge: the most conclusive evidence to date supporting the Big Bang Theory, the idea that the universe was formed from a tiny explosion millions of years ago.

The theory had first been proposed in the 1920s by George Lemaitre and Edwin Hubblewho even before he invented the famous telescope that bears his name, observed that galaxies could be measured moving away from our own, that is, still reacting to the effects of the ancient explosion. Penzias and Wilson were hearing those effects, the faint echo of the Big Bang that's heard in every corner of the cosmos.

Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.

Now It's Your Turn
We're not guaranteeing that you'll make a scientific advance that will win you a Nobel Prize, but here's one way you can follow in the footsteps of these amazing people.

How Does It Work?
Look around your house and choose a machine or appliance that's a mystery to you. It can be as simple as a wind-up toy or as complicated as a computer; as small as an alarm clock or as big as a refrigerator; anything with moving partshow about those Venetian blinds on the window?

Now follow these steps:
1. Figure out how it works.
2. Draw a diagram of its working parts.
3. Describe how it works.

Room for Improvement
There's always room for scientific advances. Now that your machine is no longer a mystery, your next task is to improve it in some way. Can you make it safer? Quieter? Louder? More attractive? Simpler to use? Can you combine it with some other machine in your house to make a brand new machine?

Open your mind and pay attention to what you've discovered and maybe someday you'll win a Nobel Prize of your own.

Learn more about Aristarchus on the St. Andrew's University Web site.

Learn more about the Wright Brothers on the Franklin Institute Online Web site.

Learn more about Arno Penzias on the Bell Labs Web site.

Related to chapter 1 of the print guide.
Related Materials

See Solving a Mystery to learn some problem solving techniques.

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