Will-o’-the-Wisps and 5 Other Mysteries Science Can Explain

Thanks to Skillshare for sponsoring this episode
— and this whole week! — of SciShow. [ INTRO ] To the frustration of scientists everywhere,
things in this world sometimes just don’t make any sense. But for the rest of us, that can be kind of
amazing. Imagining what could cause unexplained phenomena — like weird lights in the sky, or sightings
of mythical creatures — can be a lot of fun. Just ask half the forums on the Internet. But it’s also good to remember that the
world doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery for it to be fascinating. Exploration can be just as cool as speculation. So to that end, here are six mysteries — from the Easter Island statues to will-o’-the-wisps
— that scientists have managed to solve. We’ve talked about all kinds of weird weather
here on SciShow, but this might be one of the best and most
horrifying stories yet. Imagine it’s March 1876, and you’re living
in Bath County, Kentucky. You’re outside on a beautiful, perfectly
clear spring day when the unthinkable happens: It starts to rain chunks of meat. Some of them are small — about 5 by 5 centimeters
— but others are as big as your hand. And soon, your yard is covered in the stuff. I wish I could say this wasn’t a true story,
but yeah, this 19th-century version of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” actually happened. According to the New York Times, two guys
even tasted the meat rain — because they just had to be curious — and
decided it was either mutton or venison. This event came to be called the Kentucky
Meat Shower, and it baffled people for decades. Originally, one person thought the culprit
was something called nostoc — which we now know is a kind of bacteria covered
in a jelly-like membrane. And when it rains, that membrane swells up. Except, it wasn’t raining when the meat
shower happened, so that idea was tossed out the window. Eventually, though, scientists did figure
it out after studying some preserved samples. They found that the meat was meat — specifically, a mixture of animal lung tissue,
muscle, and cartilage. And later in 1876, the chemistry professor
L.D. Kastenbine discovered where it came from: synchronized, projectile vomiting vultures. This story is amazing. There are two species of vulture native of
Kentucky, and their eating habits totally explained the shower. For one, vultures aren’t picky eaters, which
is why there were various kinds of tissue, and why the meat pieces were all different
sizes. But more importantly, vultures are also frequent
vomiters. Vultures are known to eat huge meals, and if they’re disturbed before they have
time to digest all that food, they sometimes throw it up to make themselves lighter and
make escape easier. So Kastenbine concluded that, on that day
in Kentucky, a group of vultures just happened to be flying
overhead, and all puked at the same time. It’s possible that this has even happened
in other places, too, but cases haven’t been well-documented. Either way, yeah, it’s a little gross. But it’s the Kentucky Meat Shower, there
was never going to be a not gross explanation Easter Island in the southeast Pacific is
famous for its giant statues. They’re called moai, and they were built
at least 400 years ago by the Rapa Nui people of Polynesia. But here’s a lesser-known fact: Those statues
used to have little, reddish hats. Okay, maybe “little” is an understatement. The hats were about two meters across and
weighed up to 12 metric tons. And until 2018, it was pretty unclear how
the Rapa Nui managed to put them on the statues. After all, the moai are some 10 meters tall,
and the hats were really heavy. Also, it was hundreds of years ago. Cranes were a little on the scarce side. But using modeling, a team finally figured
it out. In a 2018 paper published in the Journal of
Archeological Science, researchers discovered that the Rapa Nui likely
used a technique called parbuckling. First, they would have carved the stones into
cylinders. This red rock is actually found on the other
side of Easter Island, so making a cylinder out of it allowed them
to roll it over to where the moai were. Then, they built a ramp leading up to a statue’s
head. They tied a rope around the cylinder, and then a team of probably 15 people hauled
it up the ramp and put it on top of the statue. After that, the hat was carved into its final
shape. It sounds like figuring that out would have
been easy, since it’s all based on simple machines
you might have learned about in elementary school. But discovering this required building 3D
models of about 50 statues and 13 cylinders, as well as making all kinds of calculations
about the weight of the rocks and the strength of the average ancient Polynesian. Today, you probably won’t see many of these
hats still on their moai, since weather and erosion have knocked most
of them off. But at least they’re no longer a mystery. Scientists can’t tell us how to predict
an earthquake, since there are so many variables to keep track of. But they can tell why before and during ‘quakes,
people have sometimes reported seeing mysterious lights in the sky. They’re called earthquake lights, and they
can take all kinds of forms, from blue flames to lightning that shoots
out of the ground. People have recorded seeing them as far back
as the 1600s, and they’ve been observed up to weeks before
major earthquakes and up to 160 kilometers from the epicenter. Unsurprisingly, some people blamed these lights
on UFOs. Others thought they were caused by disruptions
in the Earth’s magnetic field. But the real answer came in 2014, in a paper
published in Seismological Research Letters. In it, the authors investigated data from
65 earthquakes where people had reported seeing lights. And they found that, most likely, the culprit
was electrical activity in certain types of rocks, especially volcanic ones. The team discovered that, when you put a lot
of stress on these rocks, they can release electric charge. The pressure causes the chemical bonds between
certain compounds in the rocks to break, which releases charged oxygen atoms. If enough bonds are broken at once — like before or during a big earthquake
— a bunch of those charged atoms can rush up
to the surface, usually at a fault, where two sheets of rock meet. Then, when they burst above-ground, they can
ionize the air, giving /air molecules/ electric charge. And that ultimately creates the various flashes
of light. The conditions that cause these are pretty
specific, which explains why earthquake lights are only
seen in about 0.5% of earthquakes. And the team also mentioned that this phenomenon
can explain other things detected before quakes, like low-frequency radio emissions. Unfortunately, understanding earthquake lights
probably won’t help us predict ‘quakes, since they’re so rare and since people usually
don’t report them. But hey… take that, UFOs! With average summer temperatures around 45°C,
California’s Death Valley probably isn’t a place you’d want to sit for very long
— unless you’re trying to solve the mystery
of the Sailing Stones. These are rocks that sit in one of the valley’s
dry lake beds, called the Racetrack. They can weigh up to 320 kilograms, and they seem to move… by themselves. Of course, they don’t move very much. Some can sit in the same spot for decades. But they usually leave long streaks behind
them as they travel, and that shows us that some of these rocks
have moved more than 450 meters. For years, people couldn’t figure out what
was going on. Explanations ranged from hurricane-force winds
to films of algae. And to make matters worse, no one had actually
seen a rock move. That is, until a few years ago. In 2011, a team of researchers tried to solve
the mystery of the Sailing Stones by sticking GPS sensors on them and then… just kind of waiting for something to happen. Since the rocks move so infrequently, one
of the paper’s authors expected this to be, quote, “the most boring experiment ever”. Two years into the project, a couple of the
scientists showed up at the Racetrack to make observations, only to discover the lake bed covered in a
thin layer of water. And then, to their amazement… they saw some
of the rocks move. They eventually published their paper — and
the solution to the mystery — in PLOS One. According to the team, the Sailing Stones
only move under specific circumstances. First, the Racetrack has to fill with water,
deep enough to form floating sheets of ice, but shallow enough not to cover the Stones. At night, the surface of the water has to
freeze. Then, in the morning, the ice has to break
up into floating panels. Under the right conditions, the wind will
push those panels of ice across the surface of the water, and the ice will push the Sailing Stones. It sounds impossible, but it makes more sense
if you realize that the Stones aren’t sailing very fast. At most, they move 2 to 6 meters per minute
— which you might not notice if you weren’t
looking closely. But over the years, that can add up, creating
those famous, long tracks across the ground. There is one more mystery that remains, though: Researchers aren’t positive this method
also applies to the biggest rocks in Death Valley. So there’s still one more thing to be solved. With so much of the ocean being unexplored,
it makes sense that there’s a lot we don’t understand about it. And whenever we discover something we can’t
explain, people are pretty quick to get out their sea
monster T-shirts. That’s what happened when we heard the Bloop
in 1997. Yes, that is the official term. Because it sounds like… well, a bloop. The sound was recorded off the coast of South
America, while researchers were looking for underwater
volcanoes, and it was really loud. It was captured by microphones more than 4800
kilometers apart, making it way too big for something like a ship or a whale. It also didn’t help that NOAA at one point
announced that the sound was, quote, “possibly biological.” But in 2005, nearly a decade later, scientists
found that it definitely wasn’t. As they recorded more sounds in the ocean,
especially ones near Antarctica, they concluded that the Bloop was probably
an icequake. That’s where a huge chunk of ice cracks
off a glacier. It makes a ton of noise, and audio recordings taken over several years
show that they sound just like the Bloop. No sea monsters required. Finally, will-o’-the-wisps. You can find stories about them — or something
similar — in folklore from around the world, and you
may have even seen them yourself if you spend a lot of time in marshes or swamps. Hey, I don’t know your hobbies. They’re blue-ish lights that drift over these
kinds of landscapes, and if you get too close to one — like Merida
in Brave — it will disappear. According to many legends, they’re some kind
of spirit or creature out to mislead curious travelers. But in reality, the explanation for these
lights… well, actually, it’s almost as strange. Because will-o’-the-wisps are probably caused
by spontaneous combustion. Not spontaneous human combustion, though — that almost definitely isn’t a thing. Just the regular kind, where something bursts
into flame without an obvious source. In this case, the lights are likely caused
by certain mixtures of gas reacting with atmospheric oxygen. These mixtures consist of things like methane,
carbon dioxide, and, most notably, compounds containing phosphine
— like one called diphosphane, which is known
to ignite in the presence of oxygen. Various studies have shown that these gases
can be produced in marshes, swamps, and cemeteries, likely by bacteria living in the soil and
breaking down organic matter. And when bubbles of that gas make it up to
the surface, poof — you have a will-o’-the-wisp. It is worth noting that there are other hypotheses
suggesting these lights might not be actual fires, but just clouds of glowing gas. An experiment published in 1980, for example,
showed that you get a sort of glowing green cloud if you mix crude phosphine and methane. But either way, the general mechanism of “swamp
gas + air” does seem to explain what’s going on. Since these reactions are pretty short-lived, it even explains why these lights seem to
disappear if you approach them. Also, researchers have pointed out that some
phosphine derivatives are super toxic. So if dangerous gas clouds kept popping up
in local swamps, that might have made people especially eager
to stay away. Everybody loves a good mystery, but the stories about how we solve mysteries
are pretty fascinating, too. After all, it takes a lot of curiosity and
wonder to become a professional scientist and say “You know what I want to study? The Bloop. Or will-o’-the-wisps.” Thanks for being curious, scientists. For centuries, people have been telling amazing
stories about phenomena like this. And even though scientists can explain how
some of them happen, that doesn’t make the stories themselves any
less worthwhile. Which is why I’m glad that Skillshare has
so many classes on storytelling. Skillshare is actually sponsoring this whole
week’s worth of videos, so every day this week, we’ll be highlighting
one of their more than 20,000 classes. They’re seriously a great way to learn new
skills, brush up on techniques, or discover totally new hobbies. Like, there’s one class called called Storytelling
101 that teaches you everything you need to know about storytelling, whether you write about science or
the supernatural. It’s by the author Daniel José Older, and
besides teaching you some major themes, he also gives you prompts, tips, and follow-up
classes to check out. Skillshare also has thousands of other classes
on things like art, music, cooking, and tech. And right now, they’re offering SciShow viewers
two months of unlimited access to every class for free! So, like, I know what I’m doing for the rest
of the day. If you want to join me, you can follow the
link in the description. [ outro ]

100 thoughts on “Will-o’-the-Wisps and 5 Other Mysteries Science Can Explain”

  1. I would love to see a study into uneducated people who are convinced they know more than all the scientists combined, in other words creatards and flatards.

  2. I like watching scientific mystery videos but every now and then it's REALLY satisfying to finally hear the answers!

  3. So annoying and stupid to belief mystery would be more interesting than its solution! A mystery is just an imagination that can NEVER compute with the reality, in best case our minds are just able to seemingly copy. And still we, human being, are not good enough to even copy one to one.

  4. Scientists can't predict earthquakes… but Dutchsinse has been able to forecast them with pretty incredible accuracy by studying the patterns of quakes along plate and craton edges.

  5. Wait a minute!?!? it's pretty well documented that there was nearly a truckload of meat collected after the Kentucky Meat Shower. Let's say there was enough vultures to produce an entire truckload. Someone would notice a flock of vultures that big. Not too mention where did they get that much carrion to pick from? What about the fact vultures don't flock to that size.

    This just doesn't seem, like a viable answer.

  6. I have a question about The Bloop. I've read multiple times now that it's origin was pin pointed to the west of South Africa. How can it be caused by an ice Berg if it's near South Africa? 😅

  7. None of these stats mean anything if they're in metric. 12 years of being taught standard means metric is like Japanese to me

  8. I love this channel and I love science, but this video kind of represents everything I hate about science. When science claims to have solved mysteries… with out really solving them just coming up with the most likely scenario. The only one in this entire video that was proven in any way is the sailing rocks! everything else is still just the most likely scenario not scientifically proven!!! Which doesn't mean the science isn't correct but it's just not proven!!!!

  9. A couple of guys even decided to sample the meat because… of course they did!

    We are talking about Kentucky, after all. Nobody's too proud to go shoveling free meat into their gullet. Shoot, a bunch of them probably thought it was manna from heaven and it would be wrong not to stuff it in their faces.

  10. So if the Meat Shower was caused by vultures, exactly HOW MANY synchronized vultures would it take to make it seem like it was "raining" meat?

  11. #3 – Hey, that's pretty cool. I had heard of earthquake lights and I know about the piezoelectric effect but I never put the two together. Very interesting. Basically how grill lighters work.

  12. The death valley moving rock isn't the longest & most boring experiment I believe that goes to a tar dripping experiment which has produced 9 drops in 80 years the last one was meant to be recorded but the camera failed.

  13. Is it me or was all the "proof" surrounded by words like, "probably", "most likely", and hypothesized. Sounds like the acient aliens narrator😂

  14. something to remember about easter island: it used to be forested. when the natives raised the statues they had access to plenty of lumber for ramping and levering.

  15. Easter Island "statues built at least 400 years ago" *well not exactly – wrong – 400 + 3000 years ago might be a more accurate timeline –

    Dig under them – count the archaeological years.

    To the Youth of this World: History Books are Mainstream and that tends to be "accepted stories by anal and fearful Fraternal Academia" – and Very Inaccurate.

    Hang on – we are trying to reset the truth gauge for Textbooks – "we" being – the lovers of Facts and new Mainstream Academics and/or Educated Interested Parties.

    See: Graham Hancock (a PITA to good ole boys in Academia and specifically Archaeology) 😚

  16. If spontaneous human combustion almost definitely isnt a thing, how did Mary Reeser die? Her remains consisted of a shrunken skull, her backbone, a foot still in it's (unburnt) slipper, and ash. For the rest of her bones to have burned away, they would have needed to be in a fire over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. How did so many items in the room, including the damn slipper, remain unburnt if spontaneous human combustion wasn't involved?

  17. Internet commentators: Science can’t explain this, so it was done by fairies, ghosts, aliens, and Bigfoot!


  18. Ok first of all the two that I call BS on is the very first mystery. The meat shower. Vultures? Really? Then it wasn't really a shower was it. It must have been more like 5 pieces of meat on the ground. Hardly a shower. That's a big fat FAIL…!!!
    Then the Sailing Rocks. Nope, don't buy your story. As for everything else, sure why not. It just seems that your solutions leave people with more questions then answers. Oh yeah. What's a good mystery without the old swamp gas.
    If you don't have an answer. Don't make one up. It goes against your whole scientific claim of finding the answer to the question.

  19. It also should be noted that what most people hear when they listen to the Bloop on the internet is the original sound at 16 times its original speed. Same goes for the other undersea sounds from NOAA when you search Wikipedia for "List of Unexplained Sounds", like Julia, Slow Down, Train, and Whistle. Upsweep is also sped up, but by 20x.

  20. The third one, it seems to be piezoelectric rocks, probably quartz. Upon impact they also release electricity. They are used for lighters and watches as far as I know.

  21. Your Easter Island explanation sounds a little fishy to me. So 15 men walked up a incline towing this huge rock with a rope and where exactly did they stand when they got to the top of the head to put the hat in place? Did they turn the rock on its side at the top and wrestle it into place? This is not 'solved' as far as I can tell since it's only one of probably a dozen theories about how it was done but not proven.

  22. Alien 1: Hey Frank! What do you wanna do tonight? Let's mess with those stupid humans again!
    Alien 2: mmmkay….I'm thinking about abducting some cows and make it rain meatballs, then shape shift into a scientist and blame it on vultures.
    Alien 1: Sounds like a plan!

  23. 🤦 Nah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster did the meat shower. It's blasphemy to claim that a bunch of vultures vomited in the sky.

  24. So how did people from the bronze age cut though granite? How did they creates pullys strong enough to move the stones form Wales to the Stone Henge site? What material did they use? What did they have access to that is strong enough to make rope that can pull huge granite rocks?

  25. Item #3 – Earthquake Lights = 'Pop-Rocks Syndrome' (bite pop-rocks in the dark, makes a spark you can see)…so, CO2 under compression is actually making this happen?!?!?!?!

  26. when i was canping in kern county 8 meters from the river, looking directly up with my dad and stepmom, there were 4 "lights" in a square arrangement about the size of all the other stars and they were moving in a counter clockwise orentation from the perspective of looking directly up
    and it was confirmed by the the others with me and i have no idea of what it was
    we continued with the night of cooking and eating

  27. Idk, they odds of that many vultures simutaniously puking sounds pretty far fetched in my opinion. Plus, don't you think at least one person would notice at least one of the vultures in the sky? I mean it's not impossible, but I feel it's more likely maybe a tornado happened somewhere relatively close, close enough not to effect kentucky, but also throw meat at them. It sounds more likely than a giant group of vultures puking all at ones

  28. I grew up at a meeting point of 3 wetlands (bog across the road, marsh behind the old fields, and swamp in the woods past the rock wall) 2 lakes (one more of a frog pond) and a river, ive seen "will o the wisps" before. I personally like the gas plume theory a lot because i used to chase them as a child and i was never once burnt

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