There are few things more frustrating than an unsolved mystery.
No one knows this better than Kaleigh Rogers. Rogers is the creator and host of the podcast Science Solved It, which explores the scientific discoveries that brought light to natural phenomena that baffled experts for years. Her love of mystery podcasts inspired her to start her own.
“I love mystery podcasts, I really like true crime podcasts,” she says. She remembers listening to the entire series of a popular podcast and not getting the answers she expected at the end. From that frustration, Science Solved It was born. “I was just sitting there thinking, scientists solve mysteries all the time. They find out answers. That’s what scientists do. So it suddenly dawned on me that I could do a science-based podcast that solves mysteries and celebrates all the ways science makes us smarter and helps us understand the world.”
Over the first season’s eight episodes, Rogers investigated Marfa lights, strange, floating orbs of light that appear outside a small Texas town; Nazca lines, geoglyphs found in the desert of Peru; and whether or not Pokemon caused seizures in ‘90s kids, among other topics. The podcast quickly grew into one of the more popular offerings at Vice Media.
Rogers thinks that our natural curiosity about mysteries and the desire to understand them helps drive her podcast’s popularity. “We’re just naturally really curious,” she says. “It’s fun to try to solve a puzzle and put pieces together and figure out what the bigger picture is.”
[pullquote]I think that you can still enjoy the lore and the mystery of [the phenomenon], even if you do know the answer.[/pullquote]
That satisfaction can be amplified when it comes to solving mysteries about the natural world. “With a lot of these natural phenomena, what’s kind of fun about it is, especially if they’re very old, even if we’re good at being creative and coming up with explanations, even if it doesn’t make sense or it’s a little paranormal, having those sort of eerie, strange ideas fascinates us even more,” says Rogers.
“Even if you don’t believe it, you’re like, ‘Well, if it’s not ghosts, then what is it?’ And so when you get to find out what the actual explanation is, and it’s nature doing something really weird that you’ve never heard of before, that’s even cooler, I think.”
Scientists are finding out new answers to explain natural phenomena all the time. Many of those answers had eluded people for years. Below are some natural phenomena that long stood unsolved—until they didn’t.
The Strange Moving Stones of Death Valley
For Rogers, the episode on Sailing Stones from season one of Science Solved It was her favorite. “The explanation for that was so complicated and weird,” she says. “ … it’s nature being just as weird as anything you could come up with.”
The Sailing Stones are found on the Racetrack Playa of Death Valley, a vast, dry lakebed. “They’re these huge chunks of dolomite, which is really heavy stone,” Rogers says. But for no discernible reason, along the flat stretch of desert, the rocks move, leaving long trails behind them. Some of the stones have traveled as far as 1,500 feet over many years.
For seven decades, scientists could not figure out what was moving these massive stones. That is, until August 2014, when a paper in PLOS One revealed that two scientists (who also happened to be cousins) studying the movement actually caught the rocks in motion.
“What happens is that there has to be this secret sauce of things happening at the same time,” Rogers explains. “It has to rain a little bit, so that a little bit of water forms in the playa. So there’s a basin of water. And then it has to get really cold that night, so that that thin base of water freezes.”
“And then the next morning, it has to melt a little bit, and the wind has to blow … all of the rocks are sort of caught in this giant sheet of ice that starts to slide over the top of the water. And because the sheet of ice is so huge, it drags all the rocks with it when the wind blows it.”
The Mystery of the Nocturnal Sun
As far back as ancient Rome, people in some parts of the world have recorded a bizarre occurrence in which an extremely bright atmospheric glow essentially turns night into day. The Romans called it the “nocturnal sun.”
The phenomenon was much more prevalent before artificial light, according to Gordon Shepherd, PhD, professor emeritus at York University in Toronto. “Somebody would go out at night when it should be dark, and he or she could see their way around, and they could even read a book by it, it was so bright,” he says. These occurrences would happen very infrequently and only last for two or three nights at a time. “They’re very striking on the one hand and very infrequent on the other, which means it was an event worth writing about.”
Shepherd has never seen a bright night himself, and only knows a handful of people that have. He first heard about them in the early ‘90s from a French research partner. At the time, he was building the Wind Imaging Interferometer, or WINDII, a satellite instrument used to measure atmospheric winds. WINDII also measured airglow intensity.
“[Airglow] occurs because above about 100 kilometers, the atmosphere starts to increasingly have another component: atomic oxygen,” Shepherd says. “The molecular oxygen, O2, is split apart into its two atoms by solar, ultraviolet light during the daytime.” As these atoms slowly reconnect in the thin atmosphere, the energy that goes into separating them comes back out as light. That light is called airglow. “It’s always there … and it is the origin of the bright nights,” Shepherd says.
Shepherd didn’t exactly set out to solve the mystery of the bright nights. The answer came upon him when he looked at the way airglow moves in waves. “I could not tell you the instance when I finally figured it out,” Shepherd says.
But about a year ago, “I suddenly thought that these waves are all there, and they’re moving. So if you think of it, [with] four waves, every so often, the peaks of all four could coincide. So then you’d get a large increase [in airglow]. And that turned out to be the explanation.”
Shepherd says his discovery made him ecstatic because epiphany wasn’t common in his previous studies. “I’ve written almost 300 scientific papers, but they were pretty well all … when I knew what I was looking for,” he says. “There’s satisfaction in that, but you’re not struck by something.” This was an entirely different experience.
Even though we now know what caused them, don’t expect to see a bright night any time soon. “We found from our study that at a given location on the Earth, you would [potentially] see one about one night a year,” Shepherd says. “If that night was cloudy, then you’d miss it. Or if there was a full moon, you’d miss it. As far as modern day is concerned, it’s a phenomenon that’s just kind of vanished with the evolution of our light.”
The Disappearing Waterfall of Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota
Jeff Green, a groundwater hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, remembers when he first became interested in solving the mystery of Devil’s Kettle waterfall—a split in the Brule River where half of its water pours into a hole and seemingly vanishes. Green specializes in using fluorescent dyes to trace the flow of groundwater.
“I was at the Devil’s Kettle probably 20 years ago with my family,” Green says. “We were looking at it, and my wife and friends were all wondering why I hadn’t poured dye in it to see where the water goes.”
For years, no one could figure out what happened to the half of the river that tumbles into the hole. “The Devil’s Kettle at the Brule River splits, and part of it goes over a waterfall, and the other part goes into this kettle, which is actually a pothole—a hole scoured by glacial meltwaters,” Green says. “Half the river goes into this Devil’s Kettle, and it doesn’t come back out.”
People have theorized many things over the years, mostly that the water was going to Lake Superior, where the Brule ends. “People had these theories about where it was going, and they supposedly threw in ping pong balls, and sticks, and dye, and no one ever found them,” says Green.
But when he first saw the waterfall in the ‘90s, Green says it didn’t seem like that big of a mystery to people who understood river flow. However, it wasn’t until two years ago that Green and his research partner Calvin Alexander from the University of Minnesota began talking about tracing the water with dye.
Before they put the dye in, Green wanted to measure the flow above and below the kettle, as well as downstream in order to understand where to look for the dye. “When I asked the park staff about records of people putting dye and who knows what else into the kettle, they have nothing,” Green says. “These are just stories. There’s no evidence of anything that people did in a scientifically controlled fashion.”
So Green and Alexander used the Survey and Monitoring Division of the MDNR to find out what was really going on. “These are the people who make their living measuring streamflow,” Green says. The unit has a base near the mouth of the Brule. “They were 400 feet upstream of the kettle, and 500 feet downstream from the kettle. Upstream, they measured 120 cubic feet per second, and downstream it was 121 cubic feet per second.”
The difference was just 1.7 percent, and anything below 5 percent is a very good sign. They didn’t even have to use the dye, and the answer wasn’t as intriguing as some people might have imagined. “We basically showed that water’s going into the kettle, and it’s coming right back out into the Brule river,” Green says.
When asked how it felt to solve a mystery that puzzled people for years, Green acknowledges an irony. “I’ve done some other things in my job that are much more important in terms of water management and saving our water resources,” Green says. “But this is probably what I’ll be known for, even though it doesn’t mean very much.”
The Price of Knowing
Both Green and Rogers say that they’ve encountered people in their investigations who would much rather let mysteries remain mysteries. One thing Green didn’t expect was the backlash he would face. “There is a definite element of people that didn’t want to know,” he says, referring to some nasty comments that were left on the MNDR social media pages that mentioned his results. “People like [mysteries] like that. Me, I thought it was pretty cool we solved it.”
[pullquote]We can all do science every day. It’s accessible, it has to do with our lives, and it can be fun.[/pullquote]
Sometimes, it can be more fun speculating about all of the weird possible explanations behind a phenomenon than actually knowing the truth. But for Rogers, solving the mystery doesn’t have to negate one’s enjoyment of it.
“I think that you can still enjoy the lore and the mystery of [the phenomenon], even if you do know the answer,” she says. “You can still enjoy the fact that all these explanations came before it and that people thought so many things, and all this folklore came out of it for so many years. It’s still something you can enjoy and learn about, even if you know for a fact that there’s a real explanation after it.”
Rogers hopes that her podcast will continue to get people excited about science. “My goal for this all along was to show the process that scientists go through,” she says. “A lot of times it seems like this black box.” As she has shown on her show time and time again, finding the answers isn’t always complicated. Sometimes, it’s as simple as sticking a GPS unit on a rock.
“This is how they do it, it’s not some amazing thing that no one can ever figure out,” Rogers says. “We can all do science every day. It’s accessible, it has to do with our lives, and it can be fun.”