What are some mindblowing scientific concepts?
June 4, 2008 7:31 AM   Subscribe

What are some mindblowing scientific concepts (proven or hypothetical)?

I'm looking for some scientific concepts that people who are stoned or drunk will find absolutely incredible. Something that will captivate their strange attention spans. Any thoughts?
posted by stvspl to Science & Nature (57 answers total) 133 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics.
posted by sanka at 7:34 AM on June 4, 2008

The Observer as defined by the Copenhagen Interpretation is also pretty mind-blowing.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:40 AM on June 4, 2008

Best answer: Split-brains are pretty cool, if you can wrap your head around em.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:45 AM on June 4, 2008

Best answer: The Casimir Effect. The Fresnel Zone plate (put an object between a light and a surface, and the light's spot on the surface gets brighter). The gyroscope. Neutron stars (specifically, degeneracy pressure). The most recent common ancestor (and the last universal common ancestor).

My personal favorite: there was a first human to walk onto the continents of North and South America, possible by the Bering Land Bridge. The first person, ever.

I like to think that they were a huge asshole, driven off by their tribe.
posted by Mapes at 7:46 AM on June 4, 2008 [11 favorites]

Best answer: If youre a bit toasted its fun to think that what youre standing on is spinning at around 1,000 miles per hour. Which is also revolving around the sun on an eliptical orbit, while the sun and the whole of the milky way galaxy moves around through space. Eventually only to burn out and take all life with it. Later to merge with another galaxy and to never be recognizable again until the heat death of the universe.

Or that in your veins and lodged into your tissues and organs are many, many dormant viruses that if activated could easily cause disease and death. Or that you immune system is constantly fighting off germs that are doing their best to make you sick and even kill you. Did you shake any hands today? If so, you have a lot more of these germs.

The male seahorse get injected with the eggs it just fertilized in the female and carries them until it gives birth.

Fundamental things in the universe that we take for granted dont really exist. For instance, color is your eyes interpretation of how photos hit certain materials. Sound exists because you ears respond to certain patterns.

Music made by humans would sound like horrible noise to aliens. Things such as harmony and other musical idioms are hard wired in the human brain. Aliens might find our musical conventions to not be harmonious at all. Their music would sound terrible to us too.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:47 AM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Cantor's proof that some infinities are larger than others.
posted by escabeche at 7:47 AM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

The double-slit experiment always blows my little mind.
posted by adamrice at 7:51 AM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: That the Toxoplasma parasite could be a significant factor in shaping people's personalities, and that differing rates of infection could account of cultural variation between countries.
posted by flashboy at 7:54 AM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

That all of life as we see it, the composition of the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil, etc, is the product of a far-from-equilibrium chemical reaction that started ~3.5 billion years ago and is showing no signs of stopping yet.
posted by Schismatic at 7:54 AM on June 4, 2008

Best answer: Birds are able to see the Earth's magnetic field.

Echolocation is a pretty amazing thing too.
posted by jammy at 7:55 AM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dirt, water, sunlight, and air, when added to a tiny little seed, can make a tomato, or an oak tree, or a clover leaf. That blows my mind every time I think about it.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:58 AM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the double slit.

I consider it so mind-melting that I always wind up reconsidering the Universe when I see it.
posted by unixrat at 7:59 AM on June 4, 2008

I think that the McGurk effect is amazingly entertaining. Usually only works with native English speakers, though.
posted by supramarginal at 7:59 AM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think if I'd see the Hubble Deep Field back when I was a stoner I'd still be in the shotgun seat of Danny Spinney's Camaro, listening to ...And Justice For All and quivering in the fetal position.
posted by bondcliff at 8:01 AM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I wish I was a mod, so I could change "see" to "seen" in my post up there and then delete this comment so it looks like I never made that silly mistake.
posted by bondcliff at 8:03 AM on June 4, 2008

Another thing I find amazing is that Humans Have Ten Times More Bacteria Than Human Cells

Donna Haraway has an eloquent passage about this in "When Species Meet" -
"I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me,of us,no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many. Some of these personal microscopic biota are dangerous to the me who is writing this sentence; they are held in check for now by the measures of the coordinated symphony of all the others, human cells and not, that make the conscious me possible. I love that when “I” die, all these benign and dangerous symbionts will take over and use whatever is left of “my” body, if only for a while, since“we” are necessary to one another in real time."
posted by jammy at 8:04 AM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is no such thing as simultaneity, according to relativity. I always used to think you could think of the universe as a big machine, where at any moment, you could take a snapshot of it and describe its state. Turns out this isn't true. The timing and order of events depends on your perspective, and there is no such thing as absolute time.
posted by knave at 8:12 AM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Go beyond "quantum physics is mindblowing" and consider how mindblowing it is to think about the fundamental substrate of the universe, if such a fundament exists - probably math/logic (same thing).

Or that in your veins and lodged into your tissues and organs are many, many dormant viruses that if activated could easily cause disease and death.

Forget lodged in your tissues. There are human endogenous retroviruses which have inserted themselves into the human genome. The mitochondria in your cells were also probably originally separate organisms which integrated themselves into the cell at some point.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:27 AM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Does god play dice?

Whether or not the universe is deterministic. This is especially good for drunken speculation because it ties in to the philosophical concept of free will.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:44 AM on June 4, 2008

A teaspoon of Neutron Star wieghs more than the earth.
posted by Rafaelloello at 8:45 AM on June 4, 2008

Tachyons, if they exist. Whoa! And the double-slit experiment, yes. There are also, as I understand it, some indications that some sub-atomic particles actually move backwards in time.

Also the theory that life may well exist in sub-crustal oceans on Encedalus.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:48 AM on June 4, 2008

Plants don't eat food. They do pull some nutrients from the earth, but by and large almost all of their bulk comes from the C02 they absorb. That giant oak tree? It's mostly made up of air.

At least, this is how it was explained to me once. I am not a botanist, and I am not your botanist

posted by Deathalicious at 8:51 AM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sorry, I was way off. A teaspoon of Neutron Star would only weigh about 10 million tons.
posted by Rafaelloello at 8:51 AM on June 4, 2008

Geckos use Vanderwaal forces (that is, the same forces that hold molecules together) to stick to walls. (They essentially have atomic-scale cilia.)
posted by blueshammer at 8:55 AM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Put a cup of water on the palm of your hand. Rotate the cup 360o about the vertical by bringing your hand towards your stomach, under your armpit, back out to where you started. The cup is unchanged by this rotation, but your arm is crazy twisted. (The cup is just there so you don't forget which axis is the vertical. You can just keep your hand palm up if you don't want to walk to the kitchen or you aren't thirsty or don't trust yourself not to spill.)

Now rotate the cup again in the same direction, by bringing your hand over your shoulder instead of under. The cup is also unchanged by this second rotation, but your arm magically untwists.

It turns out this is a general result. There are systems like the cup that are the same after one rotation, and systems like your arm that get an extra twist. But the extra twist always goes away after the second rotation (and maybe some sliding around).

So far we have something interesting, but not mind-blowing. The mind-blowing bit comes when you ask this question on a quantum-mechanical level. A quantum excitation (including particles, but stranger things too) can have angular momentum with the integer values 0, 1, 2, ... (in units of h/2π) or half-integer values 1/2, 3/2, .... The integer-spin particles are unchanged under one rotation, like your cup; the half-integer spin particles require two rotations, like your hand. This is intimately connected to the fact that electrons, protons, and neutrons (spin 1/2) obey the Pauli exclusion principle (which gives us the periodic table, the solidity of matter, and other useful things) while photons (spin 1) do not.

Feynman told this story nicely in his 1986 Dirac lecture "The reason for antiparticles," published by Cambridge University Press in a slim volume called "Elementary particles and the laws of physics." The sign change in fermion rotations has actually been observed using a neutron interferometer (== double slit experiment) by Sam Werner and collaborators some time ago, though some people would attach some caveats to that claim.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:05 AM on June 4, 2008 [8 favorites]

Mobius strips creep me out.
posted by jozxyqk at 9:25 AM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Special relativity--time dilation, length contraction, and mass increase at high velocity.

Cosmic rays: your body is hit by solid particles from deep space at a rate of hundreds per second.

Math: 0.9999.... = 1

Biology: chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than (1) chimps are to gorillas, (2) dolphins are to porpoises, (3) another great example that I can't remember.

Political science: the Iranians will greet us as liberators.
posted by neuron at 9:59 AM on June 4, 2008

Although life manifests in organized structures and systems, the processes of life ultimately increase the rate at which the universe becomes disordered or chaotic. Life exists because life facilitates the destruction of the universe.
posted by zennie at 10:20 AM on June 4, 2008

If you're specifically looking for concepts, then I'll add Godel's incompleteness theorem(s). Basically, in any logical system there are statements that cannot be either proved or disproved. This really threw the mathematical/logical world for a loop.

As with some of the previous, not concepts, but certainly mindblowing:

Seconding the gecko nanotechnology thing. Gecko feet will stick to molecularly smooth surfaces, underwater, in vacuum, at freezing or boiling temperatures, and detach effortlessly leaving no residue. What the f**k?

Adding northern elephant seals. They head out to open ocean in the north pacific for months on end, during which time they: breathe out fully, dive deep (up to a mile), stay down there hunting/feeding for a while (up to two hours), then surface for about three minutes and repeat. Around the clock.
posted by madmethods at 10:20 AM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bell's inequalities.

Mitochondria were once a seperate organism, that we absorbed somehow

also, Genghis Khan has 16 million descendants.

and recently, a new native south american tribe was discovered, which while not scientific, is pretty mind blowing.
posted by Large Marge at 10:27 AM on June 4, 2008

Ah, after seeing the one above about people getting hit by cosmic rays all the time -- this is also the main source of errors in microprocessors. Personal computers tend to have less checking/redundancy to protect against this (as compared to server computers). So the next time you get a bluescreen, it just might be that some incomprehensibly powerful cosmic event unexplained by our meager science threw off a tiny particle billions of years ago, and that particle traveled the breadth of the universe, and ended its journey by slamming into your computer in a tiny explosion, simultaneously recapitulating its birth in miniature and ruining your game of minesweeper.
posted by madmethods at 10:31 AM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I thought the issues around the Large Hadron Collider were pretty mind-blowing. According to some scientists, there is a small possibility that when it operates it might create dragons or swallow the world.
posted by phoenixy at 10:33 AM on June 4, 2008

Basically, in any logical system there are statements that cannot be either proved or disproved. This really threw the mathematical/logical world for a loop.

I'd like to give a little more though not rigorous detail on Goedel's theorems: Any system that cannot prove false statements also cannot prove all true statements, and a system cannot be used to prove that that system does not prove any false statements.

Most of the rigor is in the definition and constraints on what a "system" is. A corollary is that if you have a system that can prove itself consistent (cannot prove false statements) it is in fact inconsistent. You could state jokingly that anyone who strongly states that they're always right is, in fact, completely batshit, and there are serious philosophical considerations as to what these theorems mean about intelligence.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:41 AM on June 4, 2008

Life doesn't begin at conception, the unfertilized egg cell was alive in the woman, for years and years, and traces its lineage back to the original zygote, which itself was alive in its mother for years and years, immortal, back through time, generation by generation, through the ape-like ancestors, the rat-like ancestors, the reptiles, the amphibians, the fish, the worms, the tubeworms, back -- as far back as we can look in the book of life.
posted by tachikaze at 10:50 AM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


A hive of social insects can be notionally be considered as a single, higher organism with a myriad of independent, thinking, mobile organs that we call workers (ants and bees). You can't kill this notional organism by killing the workers, you have to get the queen.
posted by tachikaze at 10:56 AM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I watched this relatively understandable look at string theory last night and had my mind sufficiently blown.
posted by Adam_S at 11:42 AM on June 4, 2008

Why not blow their minds and be entertaining at the same time? Sing 'em the Galaxy Song!
posted by captnkurt at 12:15 PM on June 4, 2008

the podcast/berkeley course, physics for future presidents talks about stuff like this (e.g.: relativity, wave/particle theory).
posted by ncc1701d at 1:16 PM on June 4, 2008

IMHO, Fourier Series. That an arbitrary function can be represented as a sum of sines and cosines revolutionized engineering, and as a result made our modern world possible. Fourier analysis is the basis behind everything from (analog) radio, television, telephones, music recording, and RADAR to (digital) computers, images, and cell phones.
posted by sbutler at 1:51 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mass is an illusion. The magazine you hold in your hands is massless; properly understood, it is physically nothing more than a collection of electric charges embedded in a universal energetic electromagnetic field and acted on by the field in such a way as to make you think the magazine has the property of mass. Its apparent weight and solidity arise from the interactions of charges and field.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:35 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

A hive of social insects can be notionally be considered as a single, higher organism with a myriad of independent, thinking, mobile organs that we call workers (ants and bees). You can't kill this notional organism by killing the workers, you have to get the queen.

This is a question of science as a social construct rather than of science as a necessarily flawed attempt to approach objective knowledge, but considering the type of mindblowing you're going for, think about similarly considering a nation, a family, a government, a corporation, etc. as something like this sort of supra-organism. Take support for that from, and give consideration to, the idea that you can consider yourself a sort of supra-organism with the mitochondria and all the commensal and symbiotic microbes.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:18 PM on June 4, 2008

The magazine you hold in your hands is massless

I don't know about anyone else but, reading that article, it blew my mind to realize that the magazine was not only massless but invisible.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:20 PM on June 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

I would second No Absolute Time and The Double Slit Experiment.

The relative time theory says there is no clock, real or imagined, that tells the same time when moving as when it is still. When objects move, physics behave differently than when they are at rest (relative to the frame of reference). You can say particles decay at such-and-such speed, and disagree with your speedy friend who says they decay at a different speed, and you're both right!

The Double Slit Experiment just scares me because it totally destroys my favorite notions of causality and determinism.
posted by Monochrome at 6:43 PM on June 4, 2008

Not so scientific, but I've always enjoyed thinking about the difference between being a whale and being a person.

Which is to say, whales (and other non-bottom-dwelling marine animals) experience the world three-dimensionally, always floating, never resting upon a surface. Their notions of touching -- both other whales and the surface of the earth -- are very different than yours or mine.
posted by inging at 8:03 PM on June 4, 2008

The incredible vocabulary and syntax of the "bee dance" never fails to amaze me.

posted by Brian James at 9:04 PM on June 4, 2008

Prince Rupert's Drops offer mind blowing videos, and an explanation that's a bit mind-twisting as well, in that they fall well outside our normal experience of glass.
posted by mumkin at 12:46 AM on June 5, 2008

You're a lumbering robot constructed by your genes to help them propagate themselves.
posted by parudox at 1:50 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you replace the iron atom in a hemoglobin molecule with magnesium, you get chlorophyll.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 3:53 AM on June 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

one more: Snow might be older than the world
posted by jammy at 9:29 AM on June 5, 2008

Remember dinosaurs? They're still around. As birds.
posted by papafrita at 2:26 PM on June 5, 2008

If you replace the iron atom in a hemoglobin molecule with magnesium, you get chlorophyll.

Not true.

a) The porphyrin-like core is very similar, but the side chains serve very different functions......they are made via similar biosynthetic pathways. Hemoglobin is a protein with a functional center similar to that of chlorophyll

b) There is No such thing as just 'hemoglobin' or 'chlorophyll': there are various isomers of chlorophyl and and various homologous proteins with the name 'hemoglobin'
posted by lalochezia at 9:47 PM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

We can design an arbritary 60 nanometer-scale object (with a resolution of 2 nm) to assemble itself out of hundreds of strands of synthetic DNA. We do this by treating the DNA as if it were a computer program in which its molecular structure contains the information needed for its own assembly. We can make 10^9 of these shapes in a 10 microliter drop of water, and image them.

For scale's sake, you could fit 1000 of these objects across the width of one of your hairs. Applications in making autonomous molecular devices, scaffolds for nanoscale electronic components and fundamental physics and chemistry studies are in the works.

My friend Paul did this. He's smart.
posted by lalochezia at 9:59 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not true.

Heh. So much for that. Thanks for clarifying.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 11:57 AM on June 18, 2008

Similar to tachikaze's comment, but on a different scale:

Every one of us is part of an incredible elite. Every one of our ancestors succeeded in procreating under adverse conditions, where countless others failed. Every one of us has an unbroken lineage back to the very first self-replicating molecule on Earth. I feel in awe every time I think about the implications, and the burdens this puts on us.
posted by Nightwind at 7:01 AM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

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