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Mysterious coded messages at university library

"All the letters are in black, except for the leaf symbol which is green. The letter appears to be colour laser printed. The physical leaf is made of plastic and has two paint splotches on it - one red, one cyan. I'm not sure what the grey pillow-shaped object is supposed to be." - Mike Moffatt

Someone is leaving coded messages and items such as a plastic leaf with paint dots inside envelopes between the pages of books at Western University. “It’s completely baffling!” says assistant professor Mike Moffatt, who has been tracking the messages on his blog.

A crowd-sourced effort to find missing Malaysia Air flight

A satellite imaging company is looking for volunteers to help comb through satellite pictures for evidence of Flight MH370. Maggie 9

The 727 that vanished without a trace in 2003

The ocean is big and deep. The most likely scenario, right now, is that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 crashed into the water and no one has yet looked in just the right place to find evidence of that crash. (You can read more about losing planes in the age of GPS in a post Rob made earlier today.) But the case made me curious about other lost planes — cases where an aircraft just "vanished" and nobody ever found a crash site or debris.

Naturally, Wikipedia has a list for that ...

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Voynich Manuscript partially decoded, text is not a hoax, scholar finds

The 600-year-old, strangely-illustrated Voynich Manuscript (which resides at Yale University) has been called the most mysterious manuscript in the world. Not a single word of the secret language has been decoded, at least not until now. Stephen Bax of the University of Bedfordshire says he has decoded ten words from the Voynich Manuscript. This seems to indicate that the document is not a hoax filled with nonsense words, as some scholars have concluded.

Stephen Bax, who teaches at the University of Bedfordshire, has produced a paper and a video where he details his theories on the text and provides translations of ten words from the manuscript, which are proper names of various plants that are depicted in the manuscript. Professor Bax explains, “I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script.

I have not yet watch Bax's 47-minute video, above.

Voynich Manuscript partially decoded, text is not a hoax, scholar finds (Thanks, Gareth and Syd!)

The secret to SIDS might be in the ear

Nobody knows what causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There are a many factors linked by correlation and lots of things that, again, correlate to a reduced risk. But the actual cause (or causes) have been elusive. Fascinatingly, research from Seattle Children's Hospital suggests that inner ear dysfunction and hearing impairment might play a role in some SIDS deaths. Sleeping mice with inner ear problems have a harder time waking themselves when they're positioned in a way that makes it hard to breathe. Meanwhile, a surprising number of SIDS victims were diagnosed with hearing problems. Maggie 6

1,661 pulp novels as free e-books

I don't remember how I found out about Munseys. It's a website with links to thousands of out-of-print books, with over 1,500 pulp era novels. There's a lot of good stuff to be found here, as well as much that fits somewhere between excellent and awful. I downloaded and read a so-so novel called Alley Girl, by Jonathan Craig. There's no "alley girl" in it, which I didn't care about anyway. It's a about a hard-boiled sociopathic cop who tries to set up an innocent man for the electric chair so he can profit in more ways that one. It took me about an hour and a half to read and it made me forget about my 18-hour plane ride last week.

At the top of the chart, get Charles Willeford's Whip Hand (he ghost wrote it for Frank Sanders, or at least wrote most of it). It's about a kidnapping/murder seen through the eyes of different characters, and takes places in Texas. Willeford is one of the great hardboiled noir writers. I read everything of his I can get my hands on.

Munseys

The Silent Wife - mystery in the style of Gone Girl

Like Gone Girl (a novel I liked so much that I interviewed the author, Gillian Flynn, on Gweek), The Silent Wife is told in alternating chapters from the points-of-view of a common-law husband and wife whose union has endured two decades of infidelity and stifled communication.

Jodi is a 42-year-old part-time psychologist who has developed a coping mechanism for her husband Todd's philandering: she gaslights him with little annoyances. For instance, she removes a key from his keyring so he can't enter his office building. But other than the quiet tricks she plays on Todd, she seems to enjoy his company and delights in making gourmet meals that they both enjoy in their high-end Chicago riverfront condominium.

Todd is a fairly well-to-do property developer, and incorrigible pleasure-seeker. He's a charming dinner party host and everyone likes him, in part because he avoids conflict at all costs. He knows that Jodi knows about his frequent dalliances, but neither he nor Jodi ever bring it up in conversation.

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Genetics: Not a "miracle", but still pretty damn strange

Besides magnetism, there's another thing that the Insane Clown Posse was on-track in categorizing as a mind-blowing mystery — Why do Shaggy 2 Dope's kids look just like him? As with the magnets, this is another situation where the obvious answer (it's genetics!) masks a much more complicated issue that science hasn't totally figured out yet. At Pacific Standard, Michael White explains why genetics is still messing with our heads, almost 150 years after Mendel:

The problem: most of the genetic differences discovered have only a very small effect. And when you add up all those effects, the result can’t possibly explain the full influence of our genes on those traits. For example, researchers have identified hundreds of DNA differences between people that influence the very strongly heritable trait of human height, but the total effect of those differences added together explains only about 10 percent of the genetic influence on height. In other words, we still can’t explain why tall parents have tall children.

Scientists have named this discrepancy the “missing heritability,” and they’ve spent the last half-decade trying to find it.

Who Owns Omni?

Glenn Fleishman on the legendary science and science fiction magazine’s murky proprietorship.

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Unsolved mystery: Can you identify this woman?

The woman pictured above (on the left in the early 2000s, on the right in a 1990 passport photo) committed suicide in 2010. When she died, she took with her the knowledge of who she actually was — the private detective hired by her ex-husband's family is now calling her Jane Doe.

When she married, in 2004, she was known as Lori Erica Kennedy. After her death, her ex-husband discovered a lock box containing documents that showed she had changed her name to that from Becky Sue Turner. But here's the twist. She wasn't actually Becky Sue Turner, either. The real Becky Sue Turner had died in a house fire in 1971, at age 2, and her family had never seen this woman before.

So who is Jane Doe? That's what her ex-husband and his family are trying to figure out. When she died, she left behind a young daughter, who is going to want answers someday. Meanwhile, the mystery is seriously curiosity provoking. As far as anyone can tell, her trail goes dead in 1988. Her entire life before then is a great big blank.

The Seattle Times has the full story, including copies of documents and photos found in the lockbox and a timeline of what we do know about Jane Doe.

Read mystery novels to learn chemistry

Deborah Blum — my favorite expert in the fine art of poisoning — writes a fascinating piece about the way mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers approached the chemistry in their stories with an almost mind-blowing accuracy. Not only did they get the symptoms of specific poisons correct, they were actually describe common chemical tests and techniques right in the narrative. Maggie

Return to Antikythera

The Antikythera shipwreck — source of the famous ancient clockwork Antikythera Mechanism — has remained shockingly unexplored in the 100 years or so that we've known about it. In fact, other than a visit by Jacques Cousteau in 1970s, there hadn't been any official, scientific excavations until last year. Turns out, there's a lot of stuff left to find at the site, from a ship's anchor and storage jars to a collection of bronze fragments — which could either turn out to be something mundane, like nails from the boat, or more clues to the Mechanism. According to The Guardian's Jo Marchant, "little bronze fragments" describes what the gears of the Antikythera Mechanism looked like before they were detached from rock and cleaned of rust. Maggie

Great mysteries of archaeology

These flat ceramic disks were either playing pieces for an ancient Roman game, or, possibly, really uncomfortable toilet paper. Scientists are investigating. Maggie

Weird meteor shower to peak tomorrow night

The Geminids are one of the big deal meteor showers that happen every year. In fact, they're regarded as one of the most reliable and impressive. They're also a little strange.

Most meteor showers happen when Earth and a comet cross paths, slingling rocks, dust, and debris from the comet's tail into our atmosphere. The sudden influx of shooting starts that results is a highly noticeable event and humans have been recording them for millennia.

The Geminids are different. They sort of just appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, back in 1862. And it wasn't until the 1980s that scientists were finally able to identify the thing that was producing them. At which point, ish got weirder.

That's because the object, known as 3200 Phaethon, is really confusing. It doesn't seem to be a comet. At least, not a normal, healthy, functioning comet. It doesn't even have a tail. In fact, at this point most scientists think it's probably an asteroid, which then leads to still-yet-unexplained question of where all the meteors come from. Asteroids, after all, do not typically accumulate tails of small rocks. So far, the best guess has to do with 3200 Phaethon's orbit, which over the course of about a year and a half takes it closer to the Sun than Mercury and then back out further from the Sun than Mars. Those wild temperature swings might lead to the asteroid cracking and throwing off dust and debris, which then becomes meteors. But, as a NASA info page pointed out in 2010, that explanation doesn't totally cut it.

The amount of dust 3200 Phaethon ejected during its 2009 sun-encounter added a mere 0.01% to the mass of the Geminid debris stream—not nearly enough to keep the stream replenished over time.

According to the International Meteor Organization, you can expect the Geminids to peak tomorrow night, around 5:30 pm, Central Time. But this is a big shower, so you're likely to see something even if you can't hit the exact peak.

Also: While you're watching for meteors, also keep an eye out for an upcoming feature here by Miles O'Brien, which will delve into the latest in Geminid science!

Read the 2010 NASA info page on the Geminids and an earlier NASA piece that describes a different theory for their origins.

Make use of The Bad Astronomy guide to meteor watching

Image: Geminid Meteor. Just one., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tydence's photostream

NASA downplays still-unannounced findings from Mars

Just before Thanksgiving, the lead mission scientist for the Curiosity rover told NPR that his team had found something that would "be one for the history books." Naturally, we all began speculating about the presence of life, giant obelisks, and half-buried Statues of Liberty. Yesterday, however, a different NASA spokesman basically asked the world to not get its hopes up too high, revising the level of importance down from "earthshaking" to "interesting". So far, nobody has said what, exactly, was discovered. (Via Colin Schultz) Maggie