My UFO experience
Like Fox Mulder, people have a lot of strong opinions about UFOs.
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun. Frank's computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. A self-described “evangelist of science," he is the author of four books and the co-founder of 13.8, where he explores the beauty and power of science in culture with physicist Marcelo Gleiser.
- Extraordinary claims, such as that UFOs have visited our planet or that aliens exist, require extraordinary evidence.
- Personal testimonies are simply insufficient to conclude that UFOs and aliens are real.
- Good luck having a rational conversation about it with anyone on Twitter.
If you were hoping, based on the title, that I was going to describe the time I saw strange lights moving at inexplicable speeds across the sky, then I am about to disappoint you. This column is actually about my experience in the public spotlight talking publicly about the connection between UFOs and extraterrestrial life. It was quite a ride.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
On May 30, 2021, I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled "I'm a Physicist Who Studies Aliens. U.F.O's Don't Impress Me." I don't get to write titles for the op-ed pieces that I write for the Times — or most other places for that matter — but, as provocative as it was, I think it captured the essence of my point. As a scientist involved in the search for life and "techno-signatures" on exoplanets, I think a lot about what constitutes a good data set for that search. In other words, what kind of data would allow me to make the extraordinary claim that my colleagues and I have detected life and a civilization on another world?
The answer had better be "some really damn good data." By that, I mean we would need to take measurements that gave us strong and unambiguous evidence for the conclusion that a particular signal comes from a technologically advanced civilization. My main point in the op-ed was that no matter how intriguing those navy UFO sightings may be — and they are interesting — they don't provide the extraordinary evidence that we need to conclude that aliens are visiting us. My arguments are in the op-ed if you want to see them. What I want to focus on here is what happened after that argument appeared in the press.
The UFO brigade
Within an hour or so, my email and Twitter feed began to light up. By the end of the day, I was getting more messages about the piece than almost anything I had ever written before. Some of the messages affirmed the argument I was making. The majority, however, wanted me to know how wrong I was. These fell into two categories.
There was a fair amount of "the-government-knows-but-won't-tell-us" kind of narrative. Lots of these messages were pretty mean.
Some people wanted me to know that UFOs — or as the government calls them, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) — didn't need to be connected to aliens for them to be of interest. I had however made this exact point in my piece.
I have no problem with people wanting to have those navy sightings (and others) studied scientifically and openly. My colleagues on the NASA techno-signature grant made this point in an excellent Washington Post op-ed. I think the process of vetting those sightings would greatly help show the public exactly how science works. These days, we have a real problem with science denial, and anything that lets folks understand "what science knows and how it knows it" would be helpful.
Credit: IgorZh / 280582371 via Adobe Stock
But many folks (on Twitter and elsewhere) held that the connection between UFOs and aliens had already been made. I got floods of links to one video or website after another, the vast majority of which were people describing something they had seen in the sky. As I said in the op-ed, there really isn't much science you can do with personal testimony. One can't get accurate measurements of velocity or distance or mass or any of the other basic data that a physicist would need to tell if something really was moving in a way that's impossible for human technology.
Some folks reached out because they had seen a UFO themselves. I totally understand that these people would want someone to take their reports seriously. I would never tell them that they did not have their experiences. What I can say, however, is that there's nothing a scientist can do to transform the description of that experience into data that we would need to reach the extraordinary conclusion that they had seen evidence for extraterrestrial life.
The truth is out there
But a significant fraction of what I saw coming across Twitter and elsewhere was just pure vehemence. These folks were absolutely certain that UFOs were alien visitors. There was a fair amount of "the-government-knows-but-won't-tell-us" kind of narrative. Lots of these messages were pretty mean. I got the sense that, for these folks, no public investigation — no matter how open and transparent — would be satisfying unless it reached the conclusion that they already believed. This, of course, is the opposite of science.
So, it was an interesting week. My brief time in the UFO limelight (I did many interviews on places like CNN, BBC, etc.) showed me a lot about how people view the question. Since I am so deeply involved with techno-signature science, I felt it was important to try to explain how the science of life and the universe works as a science.
But I don't really want to spend a whole lot more time in that limelight. It was kind of exhausting, in large part because of the vehemence of the true believers. I will follow whatever happens after the government's report comes out with interest. But my bet (and every researcher makes a bet when they choose their research topics) is that the data I need to know about life elsewhere in the universe will come from telescopes, not jet fighters.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.
At least 222 typefaces are named after places in the U.S. — and there's still room for more.
- Here's one pandemic project we approve of: a map of the United Fonts of America.
- The question was simple: How many fonts are named after places in the U.S.?
- Finding them became an obsession for Andy Murdock. At 222, he stopped looking.
Who isn't fond of fonts? Even if we don't know their names, we associate specific letter types with certain brands, feelings, and levels of trust.
Typography equals psychology. For example, you don't want to get a message from your doctor, or anybody else in authority, that's set in comic sans — basically, the typeface that wears clown makeup.
A new serif in town
If you want to convey reliability, tradition, and formality, you should go for a serif, a font with decorative bits stuck to its extremities. Well-known examples include Garamond, Baskerville, and Times New Roman. Remove the decoration, and you've got a clean look that communicates clarity, modernity, and innovation. Arial and Helvetica are some of the most popular sans serif fonts.
There's a lot more to font psychology, but let's veer toward another, less explored Venn diagram instead: the overlap between typography and geography. That's where Andy Murdock spent much of his pandemic.
Mr. Murdock is the co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter about (among other things) travel and landscape in the United States. He remembers his first encounter with a home computer back in 1984 and learning from that Macintosh both the word "font" and the name for the one it used: Chicago.
A map of the United Fonts of America — well, 222 of them.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
You can see where this is going. Mr Murdock retained a healthy interest in fonts named after places. Over the years, he noted Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Cairo, among many others. "And then, the question of how many fonts are named for U.S. places came up in an editorial meeting at The Statesider," Mr Murdock says.
It's the sort of topic that in other times might never have gone anywhere, but this was the start of the pandemic. "I was stuck for days on end, so I actually started looking into it. At some point, I realized that I could probably find at least one per state." Cue the idea for a map of the "United Fonts of America."
Challenge turns into obsession
But that was easier said than done. Finding location-based fonts turned out to be rather time-consuming. "I definitely didn't realize what I was getting myself into," Mr Murdock recalls. "I could quickly name a few — New York, Georgia, Chicago — but I had no idea that I'd be able to find so many."
What started as a quirky challenge turned into an obsession and a compulsion that would have the accidental font-mapper wake up in the middle of the night and think: Did I check to see if there's a Boise font? (He did; there isn't.)
"The hardest part was knowing when to stop," said Mr Murdock. "Believe me, I know I missed some." In all, he found 222 fonts referencing places in the United States and its territories.
For the most part, these fonts are distributed as the population is: heavy on the coasts and near the Great Lakes, but thin in most parts in between. California (23 fonts) takes the cake, followed by Texas (15), and New York (9).
Some of the fonts have interesting back stories, and in his article for "The Statesider", Mr Murdock provides a few:
- Georgia was named after a newspaper headline reading "Alien Heads Found in Georgia."
- Fayette is based on the handwriting of the record-keeper of a place called Fayette, now a ghost town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
- Tahoma and Tacoma are both pre-European names for Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Mostly, the fonts repeat the names of states and cities, but some offer something more interesting, such as the alliterating Cascadia Code or the lyrical Tallahassee Chassis. Other less than ordinary names include Kentuckyfried and Wyoming Spaghetti.
Capturing the spirit of a place
As an unexpected expert in the geographic distribution of location-based fonts, can Mr. Murdock offer any opinion on the qualitative relation between place and typeface?
"Good design of any sort can capture the spirit of a place, or at least one perspective on a place," he says, "but frankly, that only occasionally seems to have been the goal when it comes to typefaces."
In his opinion, the worst fonts reflect a stereotype about a place, rather than the place itself: "Saipan and Hanalei are both made to look like crude bamboo. Those are particularly awful. Pecos feels like it belongs on a bad Tex-Mex restaurant's menu."
California (lower left) is a rich source of location-based typefaces.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
"Santa Barbara Streets, on the other hand, is quite nice because it captures the font that's actually used on street signs in Santa Barbara. I prefer the typefaces that have a story and a connection to a place, but it's a fine line between being artfully historic and being cartoonishly retro."
Let's finish off Route 66
Glancing over the map, some regions seem more prone to "stereotypefacing" than others: "Tucson, Tombstone, El Paso — you know you're in the Southwest. Art Deco fonts are mostly in the east or around the Great Lakes. In general, you find more sans serif fonts in the western U.S., and more serif fonts in the east, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule."
Noticing a few blank spots on the map, Mr. Murdock helpfully suggests some areas that could do with a few more fonts, including the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Oh, and Route 66. Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the eponymous song have a typeface named after them. "We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set."
And finally, America's oft-overlooked overseas territories could be a rich seam for type developers: "Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface — Viejo San Juan, St. Croix, Pago Pago, Ypao Beach, Tinian."
To name but a few. Typeface designers, sharpen your pencils!
Map found here at The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission. For more dispatches from the weird interzone between geography and typography, check out Strange Maps #318: The semicolonial state of San Serriffe.
Strange Maps #1090
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by Freethink Media, Inc. All rights reserved.