Time travel has long been used, in fiction, as a method of correcting past wrongs or stealing past riches. This usually leads to trouble. But what if all time travelers recovered from the past was scientific knowledge? Here are some science mysteries from the past that could be solved in the present.
Although there are plenty of past wrongs that I would love to see righted, the sad fact is that they generally happened to people other than me. The even sadder fact is that I, myself, might suffer if they were to be corrected. On the other side, there are plenty of problems that died out in the past, and so can't be studied in the present. This does affect me, and a time traveler going back into the past and bringing the key to the puzzles back to the present could only make me better. Therefore, while I am skeptical about the kind of time travel that rights injustices, I can immediately think of quite a few problems that I would be all for a modern time traveler answering.
The Sweating Sickness
Between the late 1400s and 1551 a terrible plague hit Europe, mostly centered in England. The most ghoulish aspect of it was the fact that victims first were filled with a terrible sense of fear and foreboding - even when they were perfectly healthy. Within a few hours they were sweating and feverish. In another day or so, they were dead. Only a very few survived. No one knew how the plague was spread or what it was, and it did not appear to emerge again after 1551. In the absence of any knowledge of how to stop or treat it, it seems strange that a disease should up and disappear. To this day no one knows what the plague was - though some have speculated it was a form of Hanta virus. Sending a few scientists back in time to take blood samples and observe would clear up a lot of history books.
The Donner Party
The Donner Party were one of the many pioneer groups heading West in 1846, but they were the only ones to get stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountain range when the snow started falling. They made history when rescuers reported that the family had started eating the dead - or possibly even killing the living to get a supply of meat. Modern day historians aren't so sure. Although there were plenty of bones at the campsite, only cattle and dog bones were found at the campsite, and they showed signs of cuts and burns that meant they were butchered and cooked. No human bones can be found at the site. Some think that these bones were used last and, exposed to the elements, eroded away. Others think that the human remains were buried away from the camp - though digging in the frozen ground would have been hard. Investigators wouldn't even have had to go back to 1846 to find out. Scouting around only a few months later would lead to conclusive results.
The Voynich Manuscript Author
The Voynich Manuscript is about five hundred years old, and written entirely in code. Maybe. Maybe it's the work of a clever prankster who slipped it into a Jesuit library in Rome in 1912, which sold it to a dealer named Voynich. Whoever made it was industrious. It's two hundred and forty pages of elaborate illustrations and dense text. No one has been able to trace it. No one has been able to break the code. Close study of the overall pattern, though, seems to indicate that there is an internal consistency to the text, and carbon dating shows the paper comes from around the 1400s. This is one of those mysteries that hid in plain site. All it would take is for a historian to check every few years in the library to see if the book was still on the shelf, and if that era had any paperwork on the text. Eventually they would have to stumble across the author and . . . ve haf vays of making them talk.
How'd they do it? Why did they do it? Did they wear cool white robes and big long beards as noted historian Eddie Izzard has said that they did? There's no way to know. Now. Going back some time would make a great historical monument a lot more informative - if also a lot less mysterious.
Rongorongo is a system of hieroglyphic script that was found on clay tablets on Easter Island. There isn't evidence that people in the area had written language, and so these tablets have popped up as an anomaly. No one knows to what extent it was writing, what the tablets were expressing, or even understands the language that it was based on. Linguists are itching to understand, but there doesn't seem to be any Rosetta Stone in the area, especially since colonists and missionaries stamped out the system of writing and Rapanui, the language it's supposedly based on, is now written in the Latin alphabet. The only way any linguist will ever be able to understand it i if they go back in time and learn.
Jack the Ripper
Okay, technically this isn't a scientific mystery, but aren't you just itching to know? The suspects range all the way from royalty to American small-town serial killers who decide to cross the pond in order to take advantage of a big city's anonymity. Thousands of attempts have been made, through the century and a half since, to deduce the identity of the killer. Hell, thousands of attempts were made at the time. Still, although modern police forces don't catch every killer, it seems likely that modern surveillance and forensic techniques might clear up one of the most infamous mysteries of the 19th century. Sure, it's likely that books like From Hell would look pretty silly - unless, of course, it's correct - but think of the satisfaction of finally knowing who it was. Isn't that worth a little time travel? No? Well, how about if, while the traveler is back there, they pick up the Crown Jewels?
If you'd like to hear about how time travel might actually be possible - and what fictional stories get it right - take a look at this week's show. We'll also be talking about which time travel tropes bother us the most, and which time travel movies are the cream of the crop.
Top Image: -Jeffrey-
Via MSNBC, Omniglot, Beinecke, and Science 2.0.