I have a pot of purple shamrocks growing on my bedroom windowsill; every day, they do a sort of dance. Before the sun rises, the shamrocks stretch out their leaves toward the sky, as if to embrace the coming sunlight before it arrives. And in the evening, they pull their leaves in close to their stems, as if they were tucked in for sleep.
This day-night cycle is called nyctinasty and it’s a common behavior among plants. Recently, I was talking to a botanist who told me: No one really knows why these shamrocks, or any plant for that matter, does this daily dance. Charles Darwin himself wondered about it. Botanists still don’t know.
These shamrocks remind me that the world is still haunted by scientific mysteries. I think about them and I’m filled with wonder. Because for so many stories in science — plant stories, medical stories, space stories, environmental stories, and more — the truth is that we’re still in the middle of them. What we don’t know is still greater than what we do.
Today, we’re launching a new podcast at Vox in the spirit of embracing the unknown, and the great stories that are borne out of the endeavor. Unexplainable will explore the most interesting, crucial, and surprising unanswered questions in science.
The show premieres with two episodes and we’ll release weekly episodes every Wednesday. Unexplainable will also be available on Vox.com, where you can find new episodes and related stories.
Our first episode examines one of the biggest mysteries in the universe: dark matter. It’s the substance that holds galaxies together, but no one knows what it is exactly.
Our second episode is much more down to earth and the question is surprisingly unanswered: How, exactly, do our noses smell? We speak to scientists trying to figure this mystery out, as well as those who are charging ahead with building robot noses, despite not completely understanding how human ones work.
And in the coming weeks we’ll tell you about more mysteries big and small: stories set deep beneath the Earth, inside people’s homes, at the edge of the solar system, in our bodies, and more.
Why this show. Why now.
We hope the show can foster intellectual humility, make individuals curious about what they don’t know, and, perhaps, help inspire some to become the ones who help fill in the gaps.
The past few years have laid bare the destructive warping power of misinformation, of conspiratorial thinking, of climate change denial, of public opinions borne out of spite instead of conviction. Because of technology, it’s never been easier to disseminate lies to ears willing to hear them.
A show about where knowledge comes from can, simply, help.
Unexplainable is not about how scientists don’t know anything. Science has learned great, true, foundational things. But what we don’t still know is just massive. And not all unknowns are equally mysterious. There are many shades of “I don’t know” in science, from unanswered questions like “what is dark matter” to smaller gaps in knowledge, like how scientists are not quite sure if climate change is leading to an increased frequency of severe winter weather events.
In developing this show, we are also aware that science has flaws. There’s long been gatekeeping in who gets to ask questions and whose answers are listened to. And the institutions of science sometimes reward flashy, here today gone tomorrow results over rigorous inquiry. In other words, science sometimes gets in its own way of answering questions. We’ll tell those stories, too.
But what we’ll keep coming back to is the spark that gets scientists going in the first place: curiosity.
I believe there’s optimism in a question. Why ask one if you don’t believe an answer is possible? Sometimes there can be frustration in a question. Sometimes longing. Sometimes just a fearsome, yet intoxicating, feeling of awe.
Everything starts with a question. And all questions start with the unknown.
So come join us, you beautiful curious minds. We’re going off the map.
Want to help us explore the unknown? Join the Unexplainable community! We’ll send you links to things we mentioned in the episode, ways to contribute to our reporting, and stories that spark your curiosity. To start, simply fill out this short Google form or sign up here.