What are some real-life mysteries?
January 10, 2011 2:17 AM   Subscribe

My six-year old daughter demands to be told of the world's real mysteries! I've exhausted those I know from the top of my head, like the Mary Celeste, the Antikythera mechanism and those vent channels in the pyramids. I'd like your help, because I'd like to stay fact-based, and Google feeds me an endless supply of conspiracies, UFOs and paranormal phenomena. Solved mysteries are also good, as we can speculate and then "cheat" and look at the answer.
posted by Harald74 to Grab Bag (72 answers total) 358 users marked this as a favorite
You could tell her about Axel Erlandson and his shaped trees.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:21 AM on January 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The Oak Island "money pit" has always been one of my favorites. It's been covered at least two times on metafilter that I'm aware of.
posted by dersins at 2:33 AM on January 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Linear A
Roanoke Colony

This thread has some ideas too.
posted by knile at 2:45 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe one day she will be the one to finally solve Kryptos.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:47 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why does toast always fall butter side down?
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 2:51 AM on January 10, 2011

Is six too young to learn about quantum entanglement? The simple English wikipedia has a pretty damn cool description.
posted by londonmark at 2:51 AM on January 10, 2011

Damn Interesting
posted by phrontist at 2:54 AM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's always the Burmuda Triangle.
posted by lollusc at 2:59 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Oh and one of my favorites in nature, previously on the blue: six unidentified underwater sounds including The Bloop. I'm also, as seen in the thread I linked to previously, fond of Mistpouffers, another odd, possibly water related, mysterious sound.
posted by knile at 3:02 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: The Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast and blog are great sources of real-world mysteries.
posted by neushoorn at 3:06 AM on January 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

The McGurk Effect.
posted by coraline at 3:36 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Whatever happened to the Amber Room? Or Alexander the Great's baggage train?

You've mentioned one part of the mysteries in Ancient Egyptian architecture, but there are plenty more mysterious ancient structures all over the world, from Stonehenge to Nan Madol via either the Nazca lines or the Indus Valley civilisation or Great Zimbabwe....
posted by Lebannen at 3:39 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Nazca Lines
posted by Right On Red at 3:53 AM on January 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Periodically the earth's magnetic poles reverse direction.
Yellowstone park is a giant and active volcano.
posted by BoscosMom at 4:21 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Wikipedia's main link to its lists of unsolved problems in major fields.

And here's its list of people who disappeared mysteriously and unexplained disappearances.

And if you want to also throw in "we thought this was a mystery for a long time but we finaly found out the answer, there's always the "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" story.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:21 AM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about a couple of mysteries that turned out to be hoaxes?
Aztec Crystal Skull
Piltdown Man

What happened to the Franklin Expedition is a fascinating partly solved mystery, though it may have too high a body count for you.
posted by Coobeastie at 4:48 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Piltdown Man
posted by ChuraChura at 4:48 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Otzi the Iceman. Lots of fascinating stuff online about him (when a modern shoemaker replicated his shoes and tried them out, he said they were significantly better than modern footwear, even though it looked like he had birdnests on his feet). But the mystery of what happened to Otzi -- well, he was attacked and he died, but why? Why did he have what he did have with him, and how did he end up in the mountains, and, and ... well, it's a mystery and open to lots of speculation.
posted by kestralwing at 4:52 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: How did the builder of the Coral Castle do it, seemingly without help?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:02 AM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh man, when I was a little girl I loved this sort of stuff. Too bad the giant squid has now been really well documented these days. Amelia Earhart is still a mystery. I had a book about crypozoology that was pretty fun- Wikipedia has a list and a list of general mysteries..
posted by melissam at 5:08 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Northern Ontario has mysterious rings of stunted trees..
posted by davey_darling at 5:19 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I also loved this stuff when I was little--I had this book: Mysteries of the Unexplained and this one Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. They're both quite old, but I re-read them voraciously!
posted by MissSquare at 5:53 AM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Curse of the Pharaohs, the initial claims of unexplained deaths of members of Howard Carter's team, and the subsequent likelihood that there were fairly prosaic explanations for those deaths.
posted by Ahab at 6:16 AM on January 10, 2011

Response by poster: Some good ones here already, thanks! I can't wait to blow her mind with some of these!
posted by Harald74 at 6:22 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: The Voynich Manuscript: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voynich_manuscript
posted by mellifluous at 6:41 AM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Amelia Earhart!
posted by keener_sounds at 6:42 AM on January 10, 2011

One of my all time favorites is the unbelievably creepy (but mostly kid safe) Voynich Manuscript.
posted by telegraph at 6:46 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was just reading about the Moai on Easter Island...

posted by j03 at 6:49 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: A few I hand-picked from a list I made, once. There are hundreds more there that might fit the bill. If you'd like more suggestions, feel free to MeMail me. (I think what you're doing for your daughter, and the way you're going about doing it, is really cool, btw):

Marree Man
Vela Incident
1958 Tybee Island B-47 crash
Wow! Signal
Tube Bar Prank Calls
The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid
Valery Sablin
Prometheus (Tree)
Arbre du Ténéré
Champawat Tiger
Old Man of the Lake
Iron Pillar of Delhi
Dugway Sheep Incident
(the) Demon Core

I, like you, share an aversion to "Bermuda triangle" sort of pseudomystery things... On my lists you'll find very little of that. There are some things on these lists that have caught the attentions of people who like pseudomystery, no doubt -- so you'll occasionally have to wade through some of their noise... but the events or phenomena themselves are all rooted in fact and in the physical world.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 6:59 AM on January 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "D. B. Cooper"
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:08 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are some great mysteries here. Another: the Phaistos disk. In fact, I see Wikipedia has a whole category of Undeciphered writing systems.
posted by adamrice at 7:54 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Ah, Hell. Just because I love doing this sort of thing, and because this is meeting my current procrastination needs. Here are some more that I think meet your criteria. I hope you and your daughter find some stuff you really like:

Hiroo Onoda
Nicolas Bourbaki
Brian Wells
Lady Be Good (aircraft)
Drake's Plate of Brass
Atari video game burial
Mount Yamantau
Fabergé egg
Centralia, Pennsylvania
GRB 971214
Pacific Northwest human foot discoveries
Taman Shud Case
Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?
Green Boots
Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion incident
Craig D. Button
Joseph Jagger
Weather Station Kurt
Pintupi Nine
Wanda Tinasky
Dyatlov Pass incident
List of Lost artworks
List of people who disappeared mysteriously
Out-of-place artifact

I found fifty more, I bet, that would also work. I'll see what I can do during my planned late-afternoon procrastination fit.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 7:54 AM on January 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

At that age I loved the disappearances thing - Amelia Earheart, the Princes in the Tower, Anastasia, etc. I was also thrilled by stuff that was (sort of) lost or unreachable - the Titanic was my favorite, because the news that they found it was on TV just around the time I turned five. When I was a kid I was under the impression that it wasn't known if the Titanic sinking had ever happened until that moment - probably a conflation with the story of Atlantis.

I also really wanted to know what was in all those destroyed libraries, what made the Roanoke colony disappear, and, at night, the lost asteroids and planets (!) we used to know about but can't find now. I mean, how do you lose a planet?
posted by SMPA at 8:50 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Sailing stones
posted by novalis_dt at 8:50 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Toynbee Tiles
Yes, yes...I know it believed the creator is known, but it;s pretty circumstantial.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:59 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: A hometown favorite: The Moodus Noises. (The local high school's team is called the "Little Noises," which always tickled me as a kid.)
posted by turducken at 9:33 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Reserve heads

And if she doesn't mind mummies:
Tarim mummies
The Soap Lady
posted by oinopaponton at 9:46 AM on January 10, 2011

Awesome question! Seconding Linear A, bonus points for ladies jumping over bulls. Minoan civilization is one big cool mystery.

When I was a little older than that I went nuts for codes, how about the Beale Cipher?
posted by Erasmouse at 10:12 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Some of the lists in the Crime & Mystery and Bizarre categories on Listverse may be of interest.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:25 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Be aware that a lot of the "supposedly primitive culture makes an impressive object or alteration to the natural landscape" stuff is very well explained through totally non-mysterious means. For instance Stonehenge, the Easter Island moai, and a lot of pre-Columbian civilizations' monumental art/architecture.

For the most part, we think of those things as "mysteries" because, until the last 40-50 years, we enjoyed the rigidity of thinking of all other cultures except our own as "primitive" ones who could never have achieved anything much. So anytime a non-Anglo culture (or a forgotten, seemingly foreign version of Anglo culture, as in Stonehenge) was proven to have done anything particularly interesting, it was A MYSTERY as to how that could have happened.

The Nazca Lines still holds up as a mystery, though. There are some really good hypotheses, but as far as I know it hasn't been entirely cracked yet. Also the "venus" figurines of central Europe.
posted by Sara C. at 10:45 AM on January 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Virginia Dare, first English girl born in America, who ... DISAPPEARED. I read about her when I was about your daughter's age and found it all fascinating.
posted by cyndigo at 10:52 AM on January 10, 2011

As well as the Puma Punka stones in Bolivia.
posted by Rash at 10:53 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: The wikipedia page for Pumapunku dispels a lot of the supposed "mysteries" claimed in the Suite 101 page. For instance C14 radiocarbon dating puts the construction at more like 500 AD, which puts Pumapunku in the Early Intermediate or Middle Horizon period of Andean cultures. The details of the site are pretty consistent with those periods, and we have no reason to think that the relatively sophisticated cultures of that time would not have been able to construct such a thing.

Like other Andean sites, though, there are a lot of unanswered questions about what sites like this were used for. It's just not nearly as romantic as an "Unsolved Mystery" frame makes it out to be.
posted by Sara C. at 11:29 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: There's always the Burmuda Triangle.

The mystery there is why anyone believed that there was a mystery there; the "Bermuda Triangle" is an arbitrary demarcation in the midst of a larger area that is fairly dangerous to both ship and aircraft (for easily identified reasons).

I think that one of the most fascinating things to learn when you're a kid is how often grownups are wrong! Maybe you can tell her stories from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and The Demon-Haunted World and The Museum of Hoaxes and so on.

Whichever family member it was who gave me and The Brother a copy of Flim-Flam! when we were 10 and 8 is someone to whom I owe a lifetime of thanks.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:53 AM on January 10, 2011

More curiosities than mysteries, the Atlas Obscura is a great site for interesting places and things.
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:03 PM on January 10, 2011

jjj already mentioned this one, but Taman Shud is a particularly enigmatic murder(?) mystery.
posted by justkevin at 1:55 PM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: The Theft of the Just Judges, something that still occasionaly flares up in Belgium.

Obviously not really fit for a 6-year old: The Whitechapel Murders (Jack the Ripper).
posted by Harry at 2:44 PM on January 10, 2011

This list is amazing - I would have lapped all this up at age six, and I'm looking forward to going through it now, aged 26.

I came in to recommend the moai of Easter Island, as it was one of my favourite mysteries at that age, but also to ask you to please tell your daughter about it correctly! I'm still cross that, up until I read Collapse a couple of years ago, I was completely ignorant that the Easter Islanders themselves still existed. I thought they must have all disappeared before Europeans got there -- like a mega-sized Marie Celeste -- because the articles I read about the islands totally failed to mention them, being much more interested in the statues. Sad and racist :(.

From your wanting to stay fact-based, though, I'm reassured. Both of you have fun!
posted by daisyk at 2:46 PM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: I just remembered the tale of the Star Dust, a plane that disappeared under mysterious circumstances while crossing the Andes in 1947.
posted by Zarkonnen at 3:54 PM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: I can't believe nobody posted skeptoid yet!


Really great stuff, extremely science based, well researched.
posted by ChefJoAnna at 4:07 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, here's something else: the miniature coffins of King Arthur's Seat (a bit spooky, but no actual bodies are involved).

The Tunguska event is another favourite of mine -- here's a recent development on it.

St Elmo's fire is awesome, and the Will o' the wisp is interesting too.

Here are some amazing photos of Vietnam's largest cave system -- so big it has its own jungle inside. By definition, it's full of mysteries as it's largely unexplored.

Right, now I have to go to bed, wishing I hadn't read quite so many of the spooky ones...
posted by daisyk at 4:09 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Are the people of Liqian village in China really the descendants of Roman legion? Background story, after defeated by the Parthian at Battle of Carrhae in 54 B.C. over 10,000 Roman legions were captured. Parthian sent those Roman prisoners to guard their eastern frontier to in Margiana(in Central Asia). This area was eventually captured by the Chinese. According to historian Homer H. Dubs some of these Roman soldiers were recruited by the Xiongnu to battle the Chinese. Chinese sources mentioned a small 100 man "fish scale" formation crushed by the Chinese cavalry at Battle of Zhizhi. The captured soldiers were recurited and settled in Liqian. Was this "fish scale" formation same as the famous Testudo formation used by Roman legions?

Of course, some historians think that theory is hogwash.

Another story more famous in China and Japan concerns the fate of Xu Fu. First Emperor of China sent Xu Fu to the eastern sea to find the secret of elixir of life. After the failure of the first mission caused by giant sea creatures blocking the ships; Xu Fu requested the emperor for archers to kill the creature. Xu sailed again in 210 B.C. with thousands of young boys and girls and never returned. Later Chinese sources mentioned he landed at a "flat plains and wide swamps" and proclaimed himself king and never returned. Even later sources claimed he landed in Japan. This legend eventually spread to Japan. Now in Shingu city, Wakayama prefecture has a park named after him with shrine and tomb.

Other things I found interesting are disappearance of Mississippian Culture and Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.
posted by Carius at 7:21 PM on January 10, 2011

A Blast From The Past isn't all mysteries, but there are a fair number of historical head-scratchers and curiosities.

(And I see daisyk linked the miniature coffin story earlier. There's a lot of good stuff on that site.)
posted by paulg at 8:17 PM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Futility Closet (previously) often has items that fit the bill.
posted by puddleglum at 8:58 PM on January 10, 2011

Some I haven't seen in the thread yet:
The phantom time hypothesis.
Numbers stations.
Ancient astronauts.
posted by gerryblog at 10:13 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think "ancient astronauts" is specifically something the OP was not looking for.

But, ooooh, that phantom time thing. If I were 15 years younger or smoked weed more regularly, that might be my new favorite thing to think about.
posted by Sara C. at 10:52 PM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Along the lines of jjjjjjjjjjjjijjjjjjjjjjj's suggestion of Gobekle Tepe, I'd also suggest Catal Huyuk. It's a lot like some of the earliest cities. Except... weird.
posted by Sara C. at 11:02 PM on January 10, 2011

Best answer:
...and those vent channels in the pyramids...
Your daughter might find this short video interesting.

posted by blueberry at 11:56 PM on January 10, 2011

Response by poster: You guys are great! And a little creepy, but mostly great! We have enough material in here for a-mystery-a-day for quite a while now. I'll save some of the more grisly ones for later, though.

Thank you for contributing to a young girl's sense of wonder!
posted by Harald74 at 5:47 AM on January 11, 2011

Response by poster: For the most part, we think of those things as "mysteries" because, until the last 40-50 years, we enjoyed the rigidity of thinking of all other cultures except our own as "primitive" ones who could never have achieved anything much.

Sara C., that's actually something I can use to rig up some "teachable moments"...
posted by Harald74 at 6:10 AM on January 11, 2011

There's a great post about the alien abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. Jim Macdonald retraces the Hills' route and offers excellent commentary on the narrative of a book about the event.

He also makes this important point:

"At this point I will go to a detailed look at The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours “Aboard a Flying Saucer” by John G. Fuller. I must preface this by saying that I mean no disrespect to Betty or Barney Hill, nor to Mr. Fuller. It’s possible for someone to be completely sincere, absolutely truthful, and utterly mistaken."

It's easy to think that if someone is sincere - not intentionally lying - they must be right. It's worth noting that that isn't necessarily so.
posted by kristi at 11:07 AM on January 11, 2011

One related to my hometown...'The Bristol Hum'.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 3:31 PM on January 11, 2011

Response by poster: We talked about the Nazca lines today. Working hypothesis: They're giant school assignments for the Nazca children. She did allow that adults might have helped.
posted by Harald74 at 11:49 AM on January 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

the Loch Ness Monster might be a bit too far fetched but some people take it seriously...
posted by fetcher20 at 2:39 PM on January 12, 2011

Earthquake lights (see also this 2008 Metafilter post).
posted by cirripede at 9:00 PM on January 12, 2011

If she would enjoy answers to the real mysteries in her life, there are lots of them:

--how does a computer work?
--where does tap water come from?
but also non-science-y questions like:
--what is the difference between a real smile and a pretend smile?
--why are some school-age kids more popular than others?
--why are some adults more popular than others?
--how can I have lots of friends?
I like mysteries like these, that give you power if understood. and yes, I'm an engineer who used to be only interested in the science-y questions

If she wonders what no adult knows, well, there's science's current big questions (what is matter? what causes aging? what kind of government is best? etc.).

This reminds me of what Feynman's father told him when he asked about the names of birds:
You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing—that's what counts. They went on to answer their question (why are the wild birds nibbling at their own feathers?) by watching. So, mysteries that you can investigate by actually testing something (building something, talking to someone, etc.) might be more satisfying to learn from.

If it's creepy supernatural you want, there's The Call of Cthulhu. If you just want the sense of wonder without the creepy, there's lots of stories of miracles out there.
posted by sninctown at 5:33 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Sliding Rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley are pretty damn cool.
posted by ORthey at 3:29 PM on January 16, 2011

Oops... sorry. Didn't see that novalis_dt had already posted to them under the name sailing stones!
posted by ORthey at 11:59 PM on January 16, 2011

posted by rongorongo at 5:36 AM on January 17, 2011

The Flying Circus of Physics is a nice collection of everyday physics that also include science mysteries that we haven't figured out. We don't for example why snow crystals are the shape they are. Nor do we have an accepted explanation for ball lightning or how certain optical illusions work. Most of the book consists of solved mysteries but they are nonetheless fascinating. Why is it, for example, that if you hang a picture on a wall with a short cord, it will become crooked faster than if you hung it with a longer one?
posted by storybored at 7:40 PM on January 27, 2011

Mysteries, in a slightly different sense:

Eleusinian Mysteries
Dionysian Mysteries
Mithraic Mysteries

Since the content of these mystery religions were kept secret, and never written down, we don't really know what was going on.
posted by Hither at 11:07 AM on February 6, 2011

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