“Top Ten Unsolved Mysteries List”
I came across this list of mysteries and thought it would make a good topic to blog about. Especially since most of these mysteries aren’t particularly mysterious. At some point I will make up a list of my own, but for now I thought I’d have some fun with this. It’s an interesting exercise in logic, and a lot of people have never really been exposed to skeptical thinking about many of these. Not to mention that the proponents of many such mysteries are often highly selective about what facts they present, as well as simply making up facts as needed to bolster their case. I’m going to assume the reader is familiar with the mysteries in question, if not just check out the “list of mysteries” link above.
1. The Shroud of Turin. No real mystery here, the scientific and historical evidence is overwhelming that it is a medieval forgery, likely created in the Middle East to sell to crusaders who would buy any Christian relic they could get their hands on. (A contemporary wag said that if all of the pieces of the “true cross” were gathered together, one could build the Ark.) Scientific dating shows the shroud to be from the Middle Ages, and worse, the historical record says the shroud was bright and colourful when first displayed in 1357, but had faded to the almost blank shroud we see today within a century. That is 100% consistent with it being created shortly before it was first displayed, and cannot be explained away in any rational way. IE one would need a second miracle to explain how a piece of cloth held its colour for over a thousand years, only to fade completely within a century.
2. Mary Celeste. In 1872 the sailing ship Mary Celeste was found adrift, its crew mysteriously missing never to be seen again. There was no sign of violence or any obvious explanation of where the crew had gone. What is less rarely reported is that the ship’s lifeboat was also missing, which considerably reduces the mystery. For whatever reason the crew got into the lifeboat, and were lost at sea. The best guess is that they were inspecting the cargo of wood alcohol the ship was carrying, and panicked when a crate was pried open and a lantern ignited the alcohol fumes in the crate. The captain had his family aboard and gave the order to abandon ship under the mistaken impression that it was about to explode. Too late they realized the ship wasn’t on fire and a puff of flame had been just that, a brief puff of flame, not the cargo catching fire.
3. The Taos Hum. Here we hit paydirt, this one is actually unexplained. About two percent of the residents of Taos New Mexico are bothered by a mysterious low frequency humming noise, some have likened it to the sound of a diesel truck idling in the distance. The sound appears to be real, and its source is as yet to be identified. The only thing I would add here is that there are any number of perfectly prosaic things that can explain this, so it’s not terribly mysterious, just unidentified.
4. The Black Dahlia. This is a murder mystery from the forties. It was a gruesome murder, big news at the time, and was never solved. Lots of murders are never solved so I have to wonder why this even made the list, other than the notoriety of the case, it’s not even a puzzling case. A lot of murders are never solved.
5. The Comte de Saint Germain. This one is a little odd, this fellow who claimed to be this mysterious Count showed up at parties in Europe for over a hundred years, ageing not at all the whole time. While fascinating if true, records about the Count are simply unreliable. This could be an elaborate hoax, or simply an early example of an urban legend.
6. The Voynich Manuscript. Possibly the world’s most famous example of undecipherable text, this mysterious book filled with alchemical “text” and drawings has puzzled scholars for a century, no one was ever able to decipher it. Unfortunately it was first sold to a credulous emperor of Bohemia who had a habit of paying big bucks for mysterious items of dubious provenance. And recently it has been shown that the text could have been created using mathematical tools known at the time, so there’s no real reason to believe it is any more than the obvious, a clever forgery created to suck some gold out of a rich lord.
7. Jack the Ripper. Yeesh, another unsolved murder. Baring some amazing evidence found in an attic trunk someday, or an almost magical advance in forensics, this is just a sensational murder that remains and will remain unsolved. The profilers say Aaron Kosminski best fits the modern profile, so logically he is the prime suspect. In reality, who knows.
8. The Bermuda Triangle. Sigh. This is the most mysterious non-existent mystery in history. Millions of people travel through the Bermuda Triangle every day, occasionally a ship or plane vanishes, like ships and planes do all the time all over the world. No more ships and planes have disappeared in the Bermuda triangle than anywhere else, this mystery was made up out of whole cloth. A hack writer in the sixties wrote a book called “The Bermuda Triangle” and it caught on like wildfire and has become an icon of our age. Fascinating from a sociological and psychological aspect, but there’s no actual mystery. The world is a big place, ships and planes do get lost and are never found.
The centre piece of this mystery is how a flight of five USN planes (Flight 19) vanished in 1945. Short answer, they got lost and ran out of fuel during night time stormy weather and were unable to safely ditch their primitive aircraft in the sea. Quick test: It’s well after dark, you just crash landed your plane at sea during a terrible storm, somehow you managed to get down in one place. Your plane is now floating in a wild dark ocean where the waves are topping 70 feet (20 metres,) it’s the worst weather you’ve ever seen. Now you need to unbuckle yourself from your harness, unlatch and open the heavy cockpit (the ejection seat had been invented, but your plane was not so equipped,) climb out onto the wing and work your way ten feet back along the side of the plane. Then you have to unlatch and open a compartment where such niceties as your survival raft is stored (you are not wearing a life vest by the way.) How much time do you have to do all this while the giant storm tosses your plane about? In ideal conditions your plane will float for ten seconds.
How many of thirteen guys managed to do this? None. Frankly, if one of them had managed to get to and deploy his life raft safely, that would be a mystery. Someday soon these planes will be found pretty much where the skeptics say they are, under water north of the Bermuda Islands. Sonar technology is just about there, stay tuned, I’ll blog on it when it happens.
9. The Zodiac Killer. OK, the person who made up this list of mysteries clearly was lazy or had a crime fetish. See no. 7.
10. The Babushka Lady. Finally, something new. A scarf wearing lady is seen apparently filming the Kennedy assassination. She has never been identified, her film has never shown up. Who knows. There are other still unidentified figures who were standing around during the Kennedy assassination, like the Umbrella Man and the Swarthy Man. All of these mystery figures appear in famous films of the assassination. Some of them have been tentatively identified. I guess in this case I have to agree, there are still some mysteries surrounding the Kennedy assassinations. Fodder for a future post some day.
The author of the original list has written another list, another day. The thing that most annoys me about so many of the “mysteries” that get popular press is that by hyping, exaggerating, and just generally going overboard to make them mysterious…it detracts attention from real mysteries and discourages level headed scientists from investigating the fringe subjects that are worthy of investigation.
(The above reproduction of the Voynich Manuscript clearly shows the mysterious text and has examples of the weird drawings that are found throughout. The manuscript predates 1923 so is public domain under US copyright law.)