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What science can’t explain: The mysteries of Wikenigma

Nobody knows where the word “penguin” comes from.
a collage of photos with a whale tail.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Wikimedia Commons
Key Takeaways
  • With Google and Wikipedia, it can feel as if we know everything, nowadays. But Wikenigma is a repository of open questions and unknowns — a treasure trove of mystery.
  • Here, we look at several examples: blushing, asthma, intelligence, whale song, growing pains, laughter, and the etymology of the word “penguin.”
  • Despite modern technology and scientific advances, there are still many phenomena that remain mysterious and unexplained.

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in our time. I love the internet, antibiotics, central heating, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in order of importance). There are good arguments out there that this is one of the best times to be a human being. And yet, it can feel a little anodyne at times.

It feels as if there’s not much left for humanity to do. All the lands have been found, all the treasure has been unburied, and all the dragons have been slain. Science itself might be over. I like to imagine what it must have been like at the start of the Age of Exploration. It was a time when travelers visited exotic places and returned with tales of mythical beasts and mountains of riches. Today, you don’t have to go anywhere; you can see anything on Google Earth and buy whatever you want on Amazon. The only “unknowns” are left to those with PhDs who are toiling away in the esoteric fringes of academia. What is left for us to discover?

Well, enter Wikenigma. Wikenigma is like Wikipedia’s evil twin. Rather than give answers, it raises questions. Rather than explaining things, it tells you just how little we know about them. Wikenigma is a repository of all those open questions and great unknowns. Here are just seven of the examples to be found.


We’ve all been there. You tucked your skirt into your underwear, you accidentally farted very loudly in public, or someone you fancy romantically has found out about it. Cue the fluttering heart, the deep red blush, and cheeks that feel hotter than the sun.

And yet, we don’t know why we blush. In normal circumstances, we can control our expressions — we pretend we’re not angry, feign happiness, or hide frustration. Blushing is a facial betrayal. It gives you away to everyone. We know that the face probably has specialized mechanisms for blushing — that is, a particular blood vessel dilation system that serves only blushing. But why? We don’t know.


Asthma is increasing. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 60% more cases of asthma today compared with the 1980s, and deaths have doubled in the same time. Today, there are 300 million people with asthma and there are set to be 100 million more by 2025.

But why is asthma increasing? We don’t know. There’s a cottage industry of speculation and theory: indoor and outdoor allergens, diet, vitamins, tobacco, air pollution, obesity, Egyptian plagues, and so on. But none have been proven. There’s no consensus among experts about why the world is wheezier every day.


Though everyone agrees that Albert Einstein was highly intelligent, there’s no consensus about what intelligence is. Crackpot Charlie from the local bar certainly would fail a physics exam, but he probably knows more about the mean streets of Liverpool than Einstein did. While IQ tests can provide some quantitative measure, they are fundamentally limited in their ability to assess the wide variety of intelligences that exist. As Stanley Garn of the University of Michigan said, “If the Aborigine drafted an IQ test, all of Western civilization would presumably flunk it.”

Whale song

A great many species of whale — most famously the male humpback whale — sing. Whale songs are sonorous and soothing, yet also haunting and sinister. (Fun fact: The Seattle Sounders, an American professional soccer team, play music that is meant to mimic a whale song prior to each match.) Sometimes, whales sing to tell others about food or to find each other. But sometimes, they take part in a “whale singing display,” a hypnotic choir of incredible, undulating melody.

We don’t know why they do this. We have some ideas — it might be a way to attract females, to brag to other males, or to warn off rivals from a certain fishing turf. No theory has been proven. They might be doing it for fun.

Growing pains

One day, little Stephen is a diminutive, prepubescent boy who can fit inside a kitchen cupboard. The next, he’s a 188-cm (6′ 2″) giant with lanky legs and the grace of a new-born giraffe. As we grow, we are subjected to many growth spurts (not to mention a lot of Aunt Lucy saying, “Oh my, haven’t you grown?!”). During this time, between 10% and 40% of us will experience “growing pains,” the cramping, aching pains often felt in the legs but could be anywhere.

Yet, they almost certainly have nothing to do with “growing.” In fact, they’re quite the mystery. There are a few correlations; for instance, children who are hyper-flexible, are especially active, or have a vitamin D deficiency are more likely to have growing pains. But what causes them? We don’t know.


There are few things as good for the soul as a long, breathless, unstoppable laugh. Laughing is good for your heart, good for your mental health, and can serve as a pain reliever. Many species demonstrate laughter-like behavior — chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, rats, mice, and dogs all have been recorded laughing.

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And yet, we have no idea why we laugh. We do not know the evolutionary purpose of laughter, we don’t know the social function of laughter, and we don’t even know what biological functions induce laughter. We have lots of theories. But for something so universal and important to the human condition, it’s peculiar how little we know about it.


Not everything on Wikenigma is about science. There are also “lost etymologies.” For instance, we have no idea where the words “abracadabra,” “dog,” or “shark” come from. “Penguin” also is a linguistic mystery. It might be from Latin, pinguis, meaning “fat and juicy.” But there’s not much recorded evidence of penguin banquets in antiquity. The most popular theory is that it comes from the Welsh pen (“head”) and gwyn (“white”), but this has its own problems. For one, Welsh loan words are very rare in English. But the bigger problem might be, as Wikenigma puts it, “Notably, many penguins don’t have white heads, and are scarce in Wales.”


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