How Solving Mysteries Can Lead to Scientific
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 mysterythey'd also made
a contribution to science and society.
SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
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 itand 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 eviljust 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
Even though his findings werent 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 WRIGHT STUFF
The Mystery: How birds fly
The Scientific Advance: The invention of the airplane
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
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.
DR. BURKITT'S DISEASE
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 10º S and 10º N. This, of course, raised yet another
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.
DID YOU HEAR THAT?
The Mystery: Background noise on radio equipment.
The Scientific Advance: The only real evidence so far to support
the Big Bang theory.
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
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.
more about Arno
Penzias on the Bell Labs Web site.