The MIT community loves a good challenge, especially when it involves fundamental questions from economics to neuroscience, astronomy to biology: What are the origins of the universe? What's the cure for cancer? How do humans acquire language? Do extra terrestrials create crop circles? Despite scientific advancements, aspects of life remain elusive, but MITers are on the case. Read on to learn about mysteries explored at MIT and even solve some yourself with past Mystery Hunt puzzles.

The Great Unknown

Technology Review asked readers to pick the most profound questions of science in today's world. Do you agree?

Share your thoughts: What is the most important scientific mystery yet to be solved?

Solving Scientific Secrets

Scientific Secrets Solved at MIT

Photo: © Evirgen.

Spinning black hole dents space-time
MIT scientists and colleagues observed identical patterns in X-ray light emitted near a black hole nine years apart, indicating black holes can deform the fabric of space and time.

Tracing Habits in the Brain
Professor Ann Graybiel's PS '71 research could aid understanding of Parkinson's, Huntington's, OCD, Tourette syndrome, autism, and drug addiction.

The secrets of sleep
A new way to analyze brain activity could produce fresh insights into sleep and sleep disorders.

Warbling whales speak unique language
An MIT graduate student and colleagues mathematically confirmed that whale songs have a syntax composed of sound phrases, elements of language unseen elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

Researchers find clue to start of universe
Scientists at MIT's Haystack Observatory made the first radio detection of deuterium, an atom key to understanding the beginning of the universe.

Core science mysteries solved
Learn about stunning discoveries emanating from the School of Science: how the brain works, how to predict deadly storms, the limits of matter, and more.

The mystery of Bengay
Scientists have discovered a neurological mechanism behind cooling remedies that could help alleviate chronic and nerve-related pain.

Clock in the rock: measuring Earth's history
An MIT geologist seeks to create more accurate time scales of Earth's history including rates of evolution and the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Psychology of risk processing
Professor Andrew Lo works to incorporate investor psychology into formal models of financial decision making.

Connectivity Map links drugs and human disease
Broad Institute scientists have developed a genetic roadmap that can connect human diseases with potential drugs treatments, as well as predict how new drugs will work in human cells. A Web-based version is publicly available.

New tool may reveal architectural past
A computer design tool originally created for animation may unlock the secrets of the structure of ancient cathedrals.

What's Quick Take?

A bimonthly feature created by the MIT Alumni Association relating contemporary topics to personal life, work, and MIT culture. View the archive.

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MIT Mystery Hunt
Learn how the popular annual event got its start and try your hand at puzzles from previous hunts. Want more brain teasers? Check out those posed at the annual College Puzzle Challenge, won in 2006 by an MIT team.

Play CSI for a week
Receive hands-on instruction of crime scene investigation with leading experts, detectives, and forensic examiners on this Alumni Travel Program trip to Riverside, CA, June 10-14, 2007. Gather evidence and deduce the nature of a crime at a realistic crime scene mockup.

Crop circles: MIT's most ambitious hack?
The Discovery channel turned to a team of MIT students to solve a nagging question: are crop circles created by extraterrestrials, or can humans recreate them?

Match wits with Professor Lewin
MIT Physics Professor Walter Lewin challenged Astronomy Picture of the Day visitors to identify the phenomenon of light prevalent in a picture he posted. See if you know the answer. Read the solution or view it as a lecture, one of many from Lewin's Vibrations and Waves class.

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A crop circle created by MIT students for the Discovery channel reveals its inspiration: the footprint of Kresge Auditorium. Photo: Zoz Brooks, electrical engineering and computer science graduate student.

A crop circle created by MIT students for the Discovery channel echoes the footprint of Kresge Auditorium. Photo: Zoz Brooks, electrical engineering and computer science graduate student.


'Friendspotting,' offers new MIT social networking form
A new social networking application called iFIND, developed by SENSEable City Laboratory researchers, allows anyone on MIT's campus to locate anyone else via their laptop.

Forensic watermarks in mobile devices
Researchers are working on a new watermarking scheme to deter people from illegally sharing videos.

Alumnus made Global Positioning Systems a reality
When Bradford Parkinson AA '61 started work on a GPS, popular wisdom—and the Air Force, which needed it most—said it was impossible. But his belief never faltered.

MIT implant measures tumor growth, treatment
An implant being developed at MIT could one day reveal how tumors grow and the progress of chemotherapy in cancer patients

Sound beams hunt hidden land mines
Researchers at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory are developing a highly pinpointed sound beam that can detect buried metal and plastic land mines from a safe distance.

Portable 'lab on a chip' could speed blood tests
Researchers from MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies are helping develop a tiny portable device that can quickly test soldiers in the field for exposure to biological or chemical weapons. The device could also aid first responders.

Uncovering language development
Associate Professor Deb Roy hopes to better understand human language acquisition by recording nearly all of his son's waking hours for his first three years of life.

Nobel Solutions

MIT Nobel Laureates solve quintessential mysteries. Some examples:


2006—George Smoot '66 recorded faint echoes of the birth of the universe, confirming fundamental predictions arising from the "Big Bang" theory.

2004—Professor Frank Wilczek discovered the key to several major problems in particle physics and beyond by discovering a dominant force between quarks.


2005—Robert J. Aumann MA '52 used game theory to help explain why some groups of individuals, organizations, and countries succeed in promoting cooperation while others suffer from conflict.


2002—Biology Professor H. Robert Horvitz '68 discovered and characterized genes controlling cell death in a roundworm that correspond to existing genes in humans.

View all MIT-related Nobel Laureates.

Reading Mysteries

MIT Press

Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness
By Dan Lloyd
An innovative theory of consciousness presented in the form of a hardboiled detective story.

The Man Who Tasted Shapes
By Richard E. Cytowic
A medical detective adventure showing how synesthesia illuminates a wide swath of mental life and leads to a new view of what it means to be human.

Sky in a Bottle
By Peter Pesic
The age-old question "Why is the sky blue?" begins a quest through science, history, and art, from Aristotle and Newton through Goethe and Einstein.

MIT Sloan alum pens mysteries
Cynthia Blair's GM '77 latest book, Hare Today, Dead Tomorrow, is the fourth in her Reigning Cats and Dogs Mystery Series, which she started in 2004 under the pen name Cynthia Baxter.

OpenCourseWare: Detective Fiction
Sample readings from the 19th century to the present.