We're not so smart. Mysteries that baffle some of the smartest humans, our scientists, are proof of that. Here are five unsolved science mysteries.
The Placebo Effect
Even skeptics can be helped by the placebo effect. The word placebo comes from the Latin for "I will please." A placebo is a medicine or treatment that does not do anything, but helps patients. An example is a sugar pill.
A doctor who has tried everything else may try a completely inert medicine, accompanied by a confident manner and possibly a sales talk. Often the patient improves.
The placebo effect isn't magic. It helps with pain, sometimes with severe pain. By definition, it does not kill bacteria or viruses, or fix chemical imbalances, nor does it replace good nutrition and exercise.
A nocebo is an intrinsically inert treatment that produces harm. The word nocebo comes from the Latin for "I will harm." Some cite voodoo rituals as an example, and general ignorance about real voodoo might form part of the reason a curse works, just as ignorance about and faith in Western medicine might explain a placebo's efficacy.
We do not know why the dinosaurs vanished, though there are seductive theories. That extinction was not the only one in earth's long history either; there have been many.
According to the asteroid theory, aftereffects of a huge asteroid impact ended the age of reptiles. Others say comets or black holes caused the impact. Massive volcanic activity may have caused the die-off. Great drops in sea level could have caused mass extinctions too, by utterly disrupting the ecosystem of earth.
Nemesis is a dark star some believe orbits our sun. If catastrophes come at regular intervals (some scientists believe they do), then their occurrence could be due to transits by a rogue star. The nature of this hypothetical star is unknown, but Isaac Asimov wrote a science fiction book about it, Nemesis.
Mass extinctions certainly happened, but their cause remains a mystery.
Life on earth began in the primordial soup. At least many scientists think so. Chains of molecules built up in a "soup" of electrolytes. Lightning and volcanism added to the stew, and eventually, through eons, organic molecules formed.
Perhaps life began with contamination, others say, just as we earthlings may have contaminated other planets, or may in times to come. Whether by a passing comet, or an insufficiently sterilized spacecraft, life on earth was imported.
Perhaps aliens whose nature we cannot fathom chose to create life in our corner of the universe. Perhaps earth was deliberately seeded with life, by who knows what agency or intelligence.
Life's an unexplained phenomenon.
The universe is inconceivably vast. Therefore, it is quite likely that whatever rare event brought self-aware life to earth was repeated elsewhere. We can see, from the octopuses of the near shore and the extremophiles of the deep sea, that life need not evolve into our bipedal bilateral shape.
Yet we also know that distances in the universe prohibit travel to other worlds, according to physics. Will any earth person ever meet an alien? It seems impossible, by any scientific laws we now know.
There is not enough mass in the universe. Neptune was discovered by its gravitational effects on Uranus. Hidden Neptune dragged Uranus out of the orbit it would have held to if it had not been tugged astray by the outer planet's pull. Urbain Le Verrier is generally credited with the discovery of the planet, though the work of many led to his discovery.
Like Uranus, great structures of the universe move as if they are perturbed by the gravitational force of vast amounts of mass. At least by something. Galaxies do not rotate as if they were free of influence. Orbital velocities are wrong, and the temperature gradient across the universe is an unexplained phenomenon.
Some mass seems to be acting on the universe, but science can't find it. Therefore, it is called Dark Matter. Dark matter, combined with dark energy, is the most popular theory among physicists to explain the anomaly.
Dark matter has not really been observed well. Therefore, there are also other explanations for what cosmologists see. Perhaps our understanding of how gravity works is incomplete, or our understanding of sub-atomic particles is wrong.
It's a mystery.
Science thrives on mysteries. The mystery of Uranus' orbit led to the discovery of Neptune. The mystery of life's foundations led many scientists into the field of genetics. Paleontologists, cosmologists, and geologists all contribute to their fields while researching mass extinctions.
Some mysteries may never be solved. Children may always lie awake and wonder. Yet the benefits of seeking answers to ancient questions surround us in the modern world.