Skip to content

The most important lesson about being a scientist I learned in New Jersey

“I grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and that experience gave me everything I needed to become a skeptic.”
A black and white photo of a building that has been destroyed in New Jersey.
A damaged storefront in New Jersey in 1970. Bettmann / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • Dr. Adam Frank grew up in New Jersey in a tough neighborhood — which ended up serving him well in life.
  • Science requires that you be appropriately skeptical of extraordinary claims, like “ancient aliens” visiting Earth.
  • Unless you are expecting the con, you are going to get taken. This is the biggest lesson Dr. Frank learned on the mean streets of the Garden State.

“How did you get interested in astronomy and life in the Universe?” I have been asked this question a lot as I have been doing interviews about The Little Book of Aliens, my new book unpacking the science of astrobiology. Since the book also covers a scientist’s perspective on UFOs/UAPs, when people ask about the overlap of my biography and my scientific inclinations, they are also asking about the origins of my skepticism. That answer, for me, is really simple: “I grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and that experience gave me everything I needed to become a skeptic and a scientist.”

Belleville, NJ, where I was raised, was mostly an Italian and Irish community. But being right next to Newark, and only about 10 miles from New York City, it was a mix of all kinds of people, and most of them worked hard at blue-collar jobs. I grew up with a lot of truly wonderful people whose families were just one or two generations post-immigration to the U.S. It was a rich and varied world.

But it was also a pretty tough place. I was the only Jewish kid in school (though my family were formally atheists), and my step-father was a civil rights leader in Newark and the only African American in the state legislature. This being the 1970s, anti-Semitism and racism were not hard to find, and when it did show up it was blatant. 

I got into a lot fights.

Luckily, I got into space, astronomy, and aliens early, and that helped me deal with it all. I caught the bug from my dad. While my parents got divorced when I was just 3, my dad lived across the river in Manhattan, and he loved science. His science fiction books, and his guided tours of the Hayden Planetarium, lit the astronomy/life-in-the-Universe fire in my little kid heart. That pre-existing interest in aliens is what eventually led me to Erich von Däniken’s famous book Chariots of the Gods — and that is how New Jersey and all it taught me comes into my story of skepticism.

Ancient aliens

Chariots of the Gods was the book that started the whole “Ancient Aliens” thing. It was a big hit back in the 1970s, laying out the case that Earth had been visited many times by alien astronauts. According to von Däniken, these visitors from other worlds were the real source of Bible stories about angels, and they also taught Egyptians how to build pyramids.

I was particularly struck by von Däniken’s story of Easter Island. A thousand miles from anywhere in the Pacific Ocean, the island hosts an army of giant, enigmatic stone heads that watch over a landscape devoid of trees. How, von Däniken asked, had the islanders moved the multi-ton statues around an island with no trees to roll them on? He concluded there must have been aliens there to help. It all sounded pretty convincing to my 11-year-old self.

Then, a few years later, I was watching TV when a NOVA documentary came on called “The Case of the Ancient Astronauts.” Over the next hour, the show took me on a tour of von Däniken’s ideas, but now through the lens of archaeologists and anthropologists. These are folks who spent their lives actually studying ancient cultures. In every case, these scholars offered pretty simple explanations — grounded in actual data — for von Däniken’s alien visitations. By the time the credits rolled on the documentary, I had been transformed from an excited, alien-obsessed kid into a very pissed off, alien-obsessed kid. 

The Jersey in me

I’d been lied to. I’d been hoodwinked. I’d bought a line of nonsense, and it is here that growing up in the industrial wastelands of northern New Jersey comes in. In this part of the world — and as a teenager, I was old enough to understand it — everybody has a hustle. From the guy selling high end stereo speakers from out of his car that, you know, “fell off the truck” to the other guy who wants you to work for him hawking cooking sets door to door (“Kid, you’ll be flush!”), everybody has an angle. Everybody has a story to get ahead, and they are going to do it through you. Unless you’re skeptical, unless you are expecting the con, you are going to get taken. You are going to be a mark.

That is exactly what happened to me with von Däniken and his ancient aliens. His book was the scientific equivalent of a scam, and I had fallen for it. I vowed never to let it happen again.

In science, we learn that brutal requirements are needed for linking a piece of evidence to a claim about that evidence (like a blurry picture of a flying saucer being proof that aliens are visiting Earth). But I didn’t need physics graduate school to teach me that. I had already got my lessons in the necessity for hard-nosed, keen-eyed skepticism from the Garden State, and it served me well as a scientist for 30 years.


Up Next