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Questions About Questions and Unanswerable Questions

The most meta of queries finally get their due. 

(Image credit: Khaydock)

1. Who invented FAQs?

The Frequently Asked Questions format has existed for a while, just not by that name. (The Four Questions of Passover have been in the Talmud since around the 4th century.) Today’s popular FAQ format actually began at NASA. In 1983, Eugene Miya was tired of seeing the same old questions posed by new members of a pre–World Wide Web newsgroup. The excessive questions took up space on the mailing list’s servers and flooded users’ inboxes. To correct it, Miya started posting a monthly Frequently Asked Questions list to the group, and thus, the FAQ was born.

2. Who asked the first question?

Believe it or not, someone’s taken a crack at answering this: Joseph Jordania, an Australian-Georgian ethnomusicologist and the author of Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech. He proposes that the first question was asked by the first human being, because—as he explains it—the ability to ask a question was a critical evolutionary leap in distinguishing hominids from their ancestors. So we can't say who, exactly, but that individual gets credit for kicking off the entire human species.

3. Do other species ask questions?

Apes have understood and answered questions humans have asked in studies, but despite their sense of curiosity, they don’t ask questions themselves. “Chimpanzees in the wild have vocalization that has elements of questioning behavior,” Jordania writes. But aside from call-and-response dynamics, questioning is distinctly human.

4. Who came up with the question mark?

Linguists generally credit British scholar Alcuin of York with the first question mark, which was a tilde over a Roman dot that was meant to help with reading inflection. But in 2011, Cambridge researcher and manuscript expert Chip Coakley discovered the earliest documented instance of a question-indicating mark. The symbol, known as a “zagwa elaya”—which looks like a colon— was in a 5th-century Syriac text following what was clearly a question.

And Four Burning Questions We Just Can’t Answer

Despite all of the incredible things humans have figured out, we don’t know everything.

1. What’s inside a black hole?

(Image credit: XMM-Newton, ESA, NASA)

We’ll probably never know. Nothing can communicate from inside of one—light, radio waves, anything. Even if we could send something (like a signal) into a black hole, we couldn’t get it back. The closest thing we have to an answer employs two established theories (gravity and quantum mechanics). Scientists even have a name for this combined theory—quantum gravity—but they still don’t get how it works. For now, they think everything sucked into a black hole is bunched up and stacked on top of itself in its center, like a big, galactic dogpile. Other people think black holes could be a gate to another universe. But until someone goes into one and comes back? No idea.

2. Why do we have an appendix?

Total mystery! It’s just there (unless you had it removed). A 2007 issue of the Journal of Theoretical Biology posited that the vestigial organ once acted as a storehouse for “good” bacteria, so when pre-medicine bodies were hit with dire illnesses affecting the gut, an appendix could help repopulate the stomach with disease-fighting bacteria. Scientists agree that this guess is as good as they come, but the author of the study admitted there’s no way to confirm it without a “very expensive, heinous” experiment that might involve infecting people who don’t have access to modern medicine with dysentery. No thanks!

3. What’s the CIA hiding about JFK’s assassination?

Maybe nothing—or not. In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald applied for a visa to travel to Cuba, via the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. The CIA picked up on it. Five senior CIA officers signed off on a cable basically saying Oswald wasn’t a concern (whoops). Of the approximately 3,600 JFK files that remain sealed in the National Archives, 1,100 concern the CIA. And while the JFK Records Act of ’92 mandated all files related to the assassination be released in 2017, it also holds provisions that if the files could potentially compromise national security upon release, they can remain classified ... of course.

4. Did Tony die in The Sopranos finale?

In the most infamous last scene in TV, Tony Soprano eats onion rings to “Don’t Stop Believin’” in a sketchy New Jersey diner, then...nothing. It cut to black. Outrage and conspiracy theories abounded! Show creator David Chase was mostly mum on it until an April 2015 Directors Guild of America interview: “I never considered the black a shot. I just thought that what we see is black. The biggest feeling I was going for ... was don’t stop believing. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it’s really worth it.” In other words: You’ll never know.


The article above, by Foster Kamer, appeared in the the September 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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