As we head inexorably toward 2012, we decided to look back at some of the strangest mysteries of this past year, and some of the mysteries that remain with us as we enter the new year.
Just a few weeks into 2011 a stunning UFO video circulated around the world. On Jan. 28, a mysterious glowing light hovered high above the Dome of the Rock, an ancient Islamic shrine in Jerusalem.
It was touted as possibly the best video ever taken of an extraterrestrial spacecraft — made all the more apparently authentic because it was captured by at least two other people at the same time, from different angles. When the videos appeared on YouTube UFO interest was whipped into a frenzy; as Ian O’Neill noted, "The news headlines read: "Holy Smoke — UFO in Jerusalem," "Dome of the Rock Jerusalem light all proof UFO fans need that aliens exist" and "Credible? Jerusalem UFO footage captured from multiple viewpoints."
Skeptical analyses soon suggested that the video had been faked, but true believers insisted that the videos were legitimate. Finally in March even MUFON, an organization dedicated to proving extraterrestrial visitation, joined the skeptics in branding the whole thing a hoax. Eventually even most diehard UFO believers grudgingly acknowledged that it had been faked.
While the Internet was still abuzz with chatter about the Jerusalem UFO, another weird mystery emerged in February, from the country of Serbia. A seven-year-old boy named Bogdan made international news for his (apparently) paranormal ability to be "magnetic."
According to MSNBC and The Daily Mail, household objects such as spoons, knives, and forks stuck to his skin with almost supernatural ease. Even stranger, other things stuck to him too, such as small plates and small flat glass objects. It was quite an unexplained mystery — until it was pointed out that whatever made the items to stick Bogdan's bare skin, it was not magnetism, since many of the times were non-metallic. The mysterious ability was in fact due to simple skin friction.
Of all the monsters said to roam the earth, perhaps none was more feared than a mysterious creature that terrorized the French countryside in the 1760s. This monstrous Beast of Gévaudan, as it became known, killed peasants, farmers, and shepherds with impunity, often leaving its scores of victims a gory mess.
The identity of this monster has been a source of wild speculation, especially in France, for over two centuries. Many believe it was a werewolf; others say it was some sort of supernatural demon (owing to the fact that legends said could not be stopped by bullets); still others insist it was a serial killer (an early French Jack the Ripper).
The mystery has been told many times, including in the 2001 thriller film Brotherhood of the Wolf. In 2011 the mystery was finally solved; historian Jay M. Smith, in his book Monsters of the Gévaudan, convincingly showed that there actually was no singular Beast of Gévaudan responsible for the deaths, as widely assumed; in fact the killings were consistent with wolf attacks.
The Beast of Gévaudan was not the only monster mystery finally solved in 2011. Since the mid-1990s, people around the world (and especially in Puerto Rico and Latin America) have reported a bizarre vampire beast which became known as the chupacabra (Spanish for "goat sucker," since it was said to drain blood out of small animals including goats). According to the first eyewitness, the chupacabra had two legs, stood 4 to 5 feet tall, and had spikes down its back.
The monster had long, thin arms and legs, and an alien-like head with red or black eyes. Later alleged chupacabras found in America (mostly Texas and New Mexico) turned out to be diseased dogs, foxes, and coyotes. Though widely believed to be a real creature, the chupacabra mystery was finally solved when the original eyewitness — whose description became the "standard" chupacabra image — was shown to have confused a monster from the 1995 horror thriller Species for something she saw in real life.
In April, just a few months after the amazing UFO video footage over Jerusalem came out, a video of what appeared to be an extraterrestrial alien body recovered in Russia set off a new furor among UFO believers in the blogosphere. According to one story in The Daily Mail, "On its side with its mouth slightly agape, the slender, badly damaged body lies half-buried in snow close to Irkutsk, Russia.
Video of the alien's corpse has become a massive worldwide hit with hundreds of thousands of followers after being posted on the internet. The corpse of the badly-damaged creature which resembles ET is two feet high. Part of the right leg is missing and there are deep holes for eyes and a mouth in a skull-like head." The video's authenticity was fiercely debated for weeks, until finally two Russian teens confessed to the hoax; police found the "alien" hidden in one of the teen's bedrooms.
Though a variety of old and new mysteries were solved in 2011, many more mysteries remain unexplained as we begin 2012. Here are five.
The collapse of bee colonies has worried biologists for years. Since 2006, between 20 percent and 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States have suffered massive die-outs called "colony collapse." Many explanations have been proposed, ranging from pesticides to cell phone signals to climate change. As Discovery's Liz Day noted, "scientists are fingering their latest culprit in the dramatic disappearance of honeybees: a fungus and virus team… The virus affects bees' abdomens, often turning their tissues a purplish tone. The fungus, which also targets the bees' guts, is called Nosema ceranae. Combined, it seems the duo prevent bees from getting enough nutrition."
Though scientists have some important clues, a conclusive answer to the mystery remains elusive. Correlation does not imply causation, and just because all of the collapsed colonies had the virus and the gut fungus does not mean that the combination necessarily caused the bees to die; the presence of either one alone does not lead to colony collapse. How these cause colony collapse — if in fact they do — remains unknown.
In September 174 physicists at the CERN laboratory announced that they had shot particles between Switzerland and Italy at really high speeds. After three years of experiments and analysis, the team concluded that the neutrinos they fired arrived in Italy at one 17-millionth of a second earlier than expected. Now, one 17-millionth of a second doesn't seem like a big deal; the issue was that, if confirmed, that speed would be faster than light — which definitely is a big deal.
The experiment was run again in November, and to the consternation of many (and the delight of some) they got the same result. Further experiments are necessary to know whether there was a miscalculation somewhere, or whether Einstein’s theory of relativity has a big hole in it. Perhaps 2012 will reveal the answer.
What will be the impact of the 2010 BP oil spill that poured almost 5 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico? Scientists still don't know the answer. The initial predictions, from both the public and scientists, were dire: the ecosystem would be destroyed for the foreseeable future, devastating not only the wildlife but the local economy and tourism. Time magazine revisited the Gulf states in 2011, concluding that "nearly a year after the spill began, it seems clear that the worst-case scenario never came true. It's not that the oil spill had no lasting effects — far from it — but the ecological doomsday many predicted clearly hasn't taken place…. the damage does seem so far to have been less than feared.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated last August that much of the oil had remained in the Gulf, where it had dispersed or dissolved. Many environmentalists attacked the report for underplaying the threat of large underwater oil plumes still active in the Gulf, yet later independent scientific studies indeed found that oil had "largely disappeared from the water." Still, oil sludge continues to be found on beaches and the ocean floor. Amid the dueling reports and accusations of bias one thing is clear: as we enter 2012 the long-term effects from the largest oil spill in U.S. history remain unknown.
Are we alone in the universe? It's an age-old question that remains unexplained despite advances and discoveries in the past few years, and the idea got tremendous support in 2011. In January it was announced that the Kepler Space Telescope had found the first hard evidence of a rocky planet beyond the solar system: Kepler-10b, an exoplanet about one and a half times the size of Earth.
Though its surface is thought to be too hot to sustain life as we know it, astronomers suspect that it could have sustained life at some point in the past. That discovery came only a few months after scientists reported finding a planet called Gliese 581g, which is at just the right size and location to be hospitable for life. Then in December came the announcement that a planet with the unremarkable moniker Kepler 22b had been found: "A planet about twice the size of Earth has been confirmed to exist right in the middle of the 'habitable zone' around its star, which is much like our own… this is the first time such a life-friendly alien planet has been confirmed."
Each year the scientific community finds more and more potential Earth-like bodies, yet proof of extraterrestrial life remains elusive. When it comes to knowing whether there's life elsewhere in the universe, the question remains an unsolved mystery.
Many people have suggested that the year 2012 will bring some sort of significant global change, either in the form of catastrophic disaster or perhaps a new age of enlightenment (as in what was supposed to have happened during the so-called Harmonic Convergence in 1987). Some tie in the 2012 doomsday idea to the end of the Mayan calendar, which seems to have no more or less significance than our Gregorian calendar "ending" on December 31.
Ancient Mayans never believed the world would end in 2012 — and even if they had, it's not clear why their doomsday predictions would be any more accurate than the thousands of previous failed prophecies. (For example in 2011 preacher Harold Camping famously claimed that the world would end in May, and again in October; at last report he was wrong.)
Others are less worried about a calendar's expiration date than about what they see as more science-based threats, such as a collision with a (non-existent) planet called Niburu, or a predicted increase in solar flare activity next year which could potentially fry the world's power grids. Will these predictions and concerns come true? Time will tell.