Popular Science

Methods, not madness


YEARS BEFORE TRUE-CRIME podcasts sent hordes of listenerst­urned-internet-sleuths onto message boards, my brother and I spent our weeknights cross-legged on the living room floor, glued to Unsolved Mysteries. Host Robert Stack narrated real-life tales of cold cases, hauntings, and UFO sightings set against archival images, interviews, and re-creations of the events. At its peak, nearly 17 million people tuned in.

NBC canceled the show in 1997 after a 10-year run. But it keeps coming back; networks have reincarnat­ed the series four times. Despite host changes (the recent Netflix reboot eschews one altogether) and production upgrades, much has remained the same— most importantl­y a request that viewers call in with any informatio­n that might help solve cases.

There are a lot of scientific notions, mostly psychologi­cal, that explain the true crime genre’s longevity and highly engaged fan base. One is pretty simple: closure. We love completing an unfinished puzzle. Unsolved Mysteries has reportedly helped close more than 260 files, and once led to arrests in less than a day.

Tapping into broad population­s is something we talk a lot about at Popular Science. Research, data gathering, and study design all improve when the most diverse group possible gets involved. Endeavors also thrive when we can explore every reasonable rabbit hole, increasing the chances of illuminati­ng something that has long lived in the shadows.

A relentless approach to unexplaine­d phenomena is exactly what the perennial pop-culture hit and this mystery-filled issue have in common. It’s why physicists are hunting for dark matter nearly a mile undergroun­d (page 38), why curators are X-raying Picassos (page 96), and why one photograph­er has crawled into some of the world’s darkest caves (page 66). It’s also why we expanded the mind-bendingnes­s of Head Trip (page 102) and dedicated the Big Qs section (page 14) to unraveling the mysteries of diseases and how we can better fight them.

The method is universal. It’s a process, a way of uncovering evidence, identifyin­g potential answers, testing them, and starting again. Sound familiar? Perhaps a little like something you learned in fifth-grade science class? Well, riddle me that.

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