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.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.
When we rely on the conscious mind alone, we lose; but when we listen to the body, we gain a winning edge.
- Our surroundings contain far more information than our conscious minds can process.
- Our non-conscious minds are constantly gathering information and identifying patterns.
- By being interoceptively attuned — that is, aware of the inner state of the body — we can tap into what our non-conscious mind is trying to tell us.
The following is an adapted excerpt from the book The Extended Mind. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
If you'd like to make smarter choices and sounder decisions — and who doesn't? — you might want to take advantage of a resource you already have close at hand: your interoception. Interoception is, simply stated, an awareness of the inner state of the body. Just as we have sensors that take in information from the outside world (retinas, cochleas, taste buds, olfactory bulbs), we have sensors inside our bodies that send our brains a constant flow of data from within. These sensations are generated in places all over the body — in our internal organs, in our muscles, even in our bones — and then travel via multiple pathways to a structure in the brain called the insula. Such internal reports are merged with several other streams of information — our active thoughts and memories, sensory inputs gathered from the external world — and integrated into a single snapshot of our present condition, a sense of "how I feel" in the moment, as well as a sense of the actions we must take to maintain a state of internal balance.
To understand the role interoception can play in smart decision-making, it's important to know that the world is full of far more information than our conscious minds can process. However, we are also able to collect and store the volumes of information we encounter on a non-conscious basis. As we proceed through each day, we are continuously apprehending and storing regularities in our experience, tagging them for future reference. Through this information-gathering and pattern-identifying process, we come to know things — but we're typically not able to articulate the content of such knowledge or to ascertain just how we came to know it. This trove of data remains mostly under the surface of consciousness, and that's usually a good thing. Its submerged status preserves our limited stores of attention and working memory for other uses.
A study led by cognitive scientist Pawel Lewicki demonstrates this process in microcosm. Participants in Lewicki's experiment were directed to watch a computer screen on which a cross-shaped target would appear, then disappear, then reappear in a new location; periodically they were asked to predict where the target would show up next. Over the course of several hours of exposure to the target's movements, the participants' predictions grew more and more accurate. They had figured out the pattern behind the target's peregrinations. But they could not put this knowledge into words, even when the experimenters offered them money to do so. The subjects were not able to describe "anything even close to the real nature" of the pattern, Lewicki observes. The movements of the target operated according to a pattern too complex for the conscious mind to accommodate — but the capacious realm that lies below consciousness was more than roomy enough to contain it.
"Nonconscious information acquisition," as Lewicki calls it, along with the ensuing application of such information, is happening in our lives all the time. As we navigate a new situation, we're scrolling through our mental archive of stored patterns from the past, checking for ones that apply to our current circumstances. We're not aware that these searches are under way; as Lewicki observes, "The human cognitive system is not equipped to handle such tasks on the consciously controlled level." He adds, "Our conscious thinking needs to rely on notes and flowcharts and lists of 'if-then' statements — or on computers — to do the same job which our non-consciously operating processing algorithms can do without external help, and instantly."
But — if our knowledge of these patterns is not conscious, how then can we make use of it? The answer is that, when a potentially relevant pattern is detected, it's our interoceptive faculty that tips us off: with a shiver or a sigh, a quickening of the breath or a tensing of the muscles. The body is rung like a bell to alert us to this useful and otherwise inaccessible information. Though we typically think of the brain as telling the body what to do, just as much does the body guide the brain with an array of subtle nudges and prods. (One psychologist has called this guide our "somatic rudder.") Researchers have even captured the body in mid-nudge, as it alerts its inhabitant to the appearance of a pattern that she may not have known she was looking for.
Such interoceptive prodding was visible during a gambling game that formed the basis of an experiment led by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Southern California. In the game, presented on a computer screen, players were given a starting purse of two thousand "dollars" and were shown four decks of digital cards. Their task, they were told, was to turn the cards in the decks face-up, choosing which decks to draw from such that they would lose the least amount of money and win the most. As they started clicking to turn over cards, players began encountering rewards — bonuses of $50 here, $100 there — and also penalties, in which small or large amounts of money were taken away. What the experimenters had arranged, but the players were not told, was that decks A and B were "bad" — they held lots of large penalties in store — and decks C and D were "good," bestowing more rewards than penalties over time.
How Our Brains Feel Emotion | Antonio Damasio | Big Think www.youtube.com
As they played the game, the participants' state of physiological arousal was monitored via electrodes attached to their fingers; these electrodes kept track of their level of "skin conductance." When our nervous systems are stimulated by an awareness of potential threat, we start to perspire in a barely perceptible way. This slight sheen of sweat momentarily turns our skin into a better conductor of electricity. Researchers can thus use skin conductance as a measure of nervous system arousal. Looking over the data collected by the skin sensors, Damasio and his colleagues noticed something interesting: after the participants had been playing for a short while, their skin conductance began to spike when they contemplated clicking on the bad decks of cards. Even more striking, the players started avoiding the bad decks, gravitating increasingly to the good decks. As in the Lewicki study, subjects got better at the task over time, losing less and winning more.
Yet interviews with the participants showed that they had no awareness of why they had begun choosing some decks over others until late in the game, long after their skin conductance had started flaring. By card 10 (about forty-five seconds into the game), measures of skin conductance showed that their bodies were wise to the way the game was rigged. But even ten turns later — on card 20 — "all indicated that they did not have a clue about what was going on," the researchers noted. It took until card 50 was turned, and several minutes had elapsed, for all the participants to express a conscious hunch that decks A and B were riskier. Their bodies figured it out long before their brains did. Subsequent studies supplied an additional, and crucial, finding: players who were more interoceptively aware were more apt to make smart choices within the game. For them, the body's wise counsel came through loud and clear.
Damasio's fast-paced game shows us something important. The body not only grants us access to information that is more complex than what our conscious minds can accommodate. It also marshals this information at a pace that is far quicker than our conscious minds can handle. The benefits of the body's intervention extend well beyond winning a card game; the real world, after all, is full of dynamic and uncertain situations, in which there is no time to ponder all the pros and cons. When we rely on the conscious mind alone, we lose — but when we listen to the body, we gain a winning edge.
Annie Murphy Paul is a science writer who covers research on learning and cognition. She is the author of The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, from which this article is adapted.
Brain cells snap strands of DNA in many more places and cell types than researchers previously thought.
The urgency to remember a dangerous experience requires the brain to make a series of potentially dangerous moves: Neurons and other brain cells snap open their DNA in numerous locations — more than previously realized, according to a new study — to provide quick access to genetic instructions for the mechanisms of memory storage.
The extent of these DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in multiple key brain regions is surprising and concerning, says study senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, because while the breaks are routinely repaired, that process may become more flawed and fragile with age. Tsai's lab has shown that lingering DSBs are associated with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline and that repair mechanisms can falter.
"We wanted to understand exactly how widespread and extensive this natural activity is in the brain upon memory formation because that can give us insight into how genomic instability could undermine brain health down the road," says Tsai, who is also a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a leader of MIT's Aging Brain Initiative. "Clearly, memory formation is an urgent priority for healthy brain function, but these new results showing that several types of brain cells break their DNA in so many places to quickly express genes is still striking."
In 2015, Tsai's lab provided the first demonstration that neuronal activity caused DSBs and that they induced rapid gene expression. But those findings, mostly made in lab preparations of neurons, did not capture the full extent of the activity in the context of memory formation in a behaving animal, and did not investigate what happened in cells other than neurons.
In the new study published July 1 in PLOS ONE, lead author and former graduate student Ryan Stott and co-author and former research technician Oleg Kritsky sought to investigate the full landscape of DSB activity in learning and memory. To do so, they gave mice little electrical zaps to the feet when they entered a box, to condition a fear memory of that context. They then used several methods to assess DSBs and gene expression in the brains of the mice over the next half-hour, particularly among a variety of cell types in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two regions essential for the formation and storage of conditioned fear memories. They also made measurements in the brains of mice that did not experience the foot shock to establish a baseline of activity for comparison.
The creation of a fear memory doubled the number of DSBs among neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, affecting more than 300 genes in each region. Among 206 affected genes common to both regions, the researchers then looked at what those genes do. Many were associated with the function of the connections neurons make with each other, called synapses. This makes sense because learning arises when neurons change their connections (a phenomenon called "synaptic plasticity") and memories are formed when groups of neurons connect together into ensembles called engrams.
"Many genes essential for neuronal function and memory formation, and significantly more of them than expected based on previous observations in cultured neurons … are potentially hotspots of DSB formation," the authors wrote in the study.
In another analysis, the researchers confirmed through measurements of RNA that the increase in DSBs indeed correlated closely with increased transcription and expression of affected genes, including ones affecting synapse function, as quickly as 10-30 minutes after the foot shock exposure.
"Overall, we find transcriptional changes are more strongly associated with [DSBs] in the brain than anticipated," they wrote. "Previously we observed 20 gene-associated [DSB] loci following stimulation of cultured neurons, while in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex we see more than 100-150 gene associated [DSB] loci that are transcriptionally induced."
Snapping with stress
In the analysis of gene expression, the neuroscientists looked at not only neurons but also non-neuronal brain cells, or glia, and found that they also showed changes in expression of hundreds of genes after fear conditioning. Glia called astrocytes are known to be involved in fear learning, for instance, and they showed significant DSB and gene expression changes after fear conditioning.
Among the most important functions of genes associated with fear conditioning-related DSBs in glia was the response to hormones. The researchers therefore looked to see which hormones might be particularly involved and discovered that it was glutocortocoids, which are secreted in response to stress. Sure enough, the study data showed that in glia, many of the DSBs that occurred following fear conditioning occurred at genomic sites related to glutocortocoid receptors. Further tests revealed that directly stimulating those hormone receptors could trigger the same DSBs that fear conditioning did and that blocking the receptors could prevent transcription of key genes after fear conditioning.
Tsai says the finding that glia are so deeply involved in establishing memories from fear conditioning is an important surprise of the new study.
"The ability of glia to mount a robust transcriptional response to glutocorticoids suggest that glia may have a much larger role to play in the response to stress and its impact on the brain during learning than previously appreciated," she and her co-authors wrote.
Damage and danger?
More research will have to be done to prove that the DSBs required for forming and storing fear memories are a threat to later brain health, but the new study only adds to evidence that it may be the case, the authors say.
"Overall we have identified sites of DSBs at genes important for neuronal and glial functions, suggesting that impaired DNA repair of these recurrent DNA breaks which are generated as part of brain activity could result in genomic instability that contribute to aging and disease in the brain," they wrote.
The National Institutes of Health, The Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, and the JPB Foundation provided funding for the research.
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