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The government’s secret UFO reading list is revealed. Wow.

FOIA release sheds light on the DOD's own struggle to understand UFOs.

(Vladi333/SONY/Big Think)
  • A just-unclassified Department of Defense reading list on UFOs is stunning.
  • The DOD is wondering if the truth lies in some of the most far-out theories.
  • Science fiction has nothing on science fact.

The public finally had a chance in 2017 to see some of the government's tightly guarded UFO footage — never mind the sudden admission that it existed in the first place. The handful of clips that were de-classified were eye-popping, depicting flying somethings with ridiculous maneuvering capabilities, far beyond anything we'd seen in human craft. Sure, we wondered where they came from and who was driving those things, but just as urgent was a desire to wrap our heads around how they were doing the things they were doing. Apparently, the Department of Defense (DOD) was right there with us, because their recently published reading list suggests their suspicions went in some seriously sci-fi directions.

The reading list

The first page of the DOD reading list. (Full list here.)

(Image: DOD)

We're seeing this list because of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program by Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. It was released to Congress in January 2018.

At the top, as you can see, it's somehow both "UNCLASSIFIED" and "FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY." And, if you're not confused yet, both phrases are crossed out.

The DOD’s possible explanations for UFO behavior

What's on this reading list jumps right into the theoretical and even quasi-fictional (Star Trek's warp drive?). After all, any explanation for both the presence of UFOs and their observed behavior would have to solve two currently unanswerable riddles.

  1. If these are aliens, how did they successfully traverse the massive distances between Earth and, well, basically anywhere?
  2. How are these whatever-they-ares moving the way they do with such startling agility and speed?

The DOD seems to be looking at this question from a variety of angles, also including the effects of space travel on biological tissue, communications technologies, and energy storage. They're also wondering, apparently, if they're from space or are somehow home-grown. Also, um, weapons?

Many of the books listed appear to themselves be classified and thus unavailable to the general public. It's also worth noting that some of the publications are by NASA, which demonstrates their out-of-box thinking, too.

Where do these things come from?

The DOD has apparently revisited the Drake equation that quantifies the likelihood of intelligent alien life. But could these weird craft maybe be the product of a single brilliant earthling? Maybe. Maverick Inventor Versus Corporate Inventor is on the list.

Possible means of interstellar travel

How would alien vehicles traverse vast stretches of space? As Douglas Adams famously wrote in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space."

Care for some light reading on confinement fusion? How about vacuum engineering or aneutronic fusion propulsion? Positron propulsion, and negative mass propulsion? Star Trek's warp drive? Yup, and we'll throw in inter-dimensional travel, too: Warp Drive, Dark Energy, and the Manipulation of Extra Dimensions. Speaking of extra-dimensional shortcuts, how about Traversable Wormholes, Stargates, and Negative Energy? And, of course, quantum entanglement, always a party favorite.

Amazing maneuvers

The DOD's interests in this area have to do with a wide range of elements, from materials — Biomaterials, metamaterials, Metallic Glasses — to methods of control, such as Metallic Spintronics, and antigravity. There's also the disturbing Technological Approaches to Controlling External Devices in the Absence of Limb-Operated lnterfaces. And you know how UFOs can sometimes suddenly disappear? Sit down, Hagrid: The DOD read Invisibility Cloaking.

And then there are the observations of multiple craft doing "impossible" things. How are they all working together? You could read Cognitive Limits on Simultaneous Control of Multiple Unmanned Spacecraft before lights-out tonight if it wasn't classified.

Bang, bang, or zap, zap

We'll just say this: The DOD has lasers on its mind. There are a few publications here on high-powered lasers. Also maybe microwaves.

So, seriously what on earth?

It's unlikely that the entire DOD takes UFOs this seriously, or is so obviously well-versed in science fiction as to even consider some of these angles. Clearly, though, at least some members of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program have spent as many hours immersed in space opera as we have. This list reveals two startling things: Science may be catching up to fiction. And maybe us nerds aren't so crazy after all.

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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

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Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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