Are Mermaids Real? 11 Myths the U.S. Government Has Addressed

Usually the government sticks to reality, but there are a number of times where agencies have investigated or weighed in on more mythical ideas. From mermaids to Santa Claus, here are 11 legends that the government has acknowledged, even if just to deny.

1. Mermaids

Late last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a curious addition to its Ocean Facts section: "Are Mermaids Real?" Describing them as "half-human, half-fish sirens of the sea," the post goes on to describe the various appearances of mermaids in folklore, from cave paintings to The Odyssey. However, NOAA comes to the final conclusion that "no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found." The agency says the post came in response to several requests from the public after Animal Planet aired a special called Mermaids: The Body Found that claimed to paint "a wildly convincing picture of the existence of mermaids."

Verdict: Not real

2. Mutants

While villainous government officials in the X-Men universe may have been fighting for mutant registration and restriction, a real-life lawsuit left the Department of Justice arguing that mutants are actually closer to humans. The bizarre case (described in a great Radiolab piece) centered on customs regulations and the definition of "dolls" versus "toys." According to the law, "dolls" represented humans and were taxed at a higher rate than "toys," which have non-human characteristics. A pair of enterprising lawyers working for a company producing figurines for Marvel realized that the company could almost halve their taxes by arguing that the "dolls" were actually non-human "toys." Citing features like Wolverine's claws, Cyclops' laser eyes and the blue fur of Beast, the company went to court to say that the mutants represented in the figurines could not be classified as human. The government, however, argued that the characters were essentially human. Ultimately, the United States Court of International Trade came down on the side of the toy company, declaring in their verdict that the mutants are "more than (or different than) humans" and adding that they "use their extraordinary and unnatural physical and psychic powers on the side of either good or evil."

Verdict: If they're real, they're not human

3. Zombies

After a Miami man was found eating a victim's face, a Baltimore college student admitted to killing his roommate and eating his body parts, and a New Jersey man threw his own intestines at police, rumors of a coming mass zombie attack started flying. In fact, the chatter got so heavy that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even had to respond. In a statement to the Huffington Post, CDC spokesman David Daigle wrote that the "CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms)."

Just in case, the CDC also has a helpful guide on preparing for a zombie apocalypse, published in May 2011. Among their tips: get an emergency kit ready, get your emergency contacts ready and plan multiple evacuation routes "so that the flesh eaters don't have a chance."

Verdict: Not real, but be prepared

4. Atlantis

Images published on Google Earth of the ocean floor have led several people to think that they've found the lost city of Atlantis, or at least evidence of some underwater civilization. The clue, they say, is a series of grid-like lines on the floor that had to be man-made. In response to several inquiries about the lines, NOAA has published posts debunking the Atlantis theories. The real reason the lines are there, they say, is because the mapping tools are layering several smaller maps on top of each other. "While the strange grid-like patterns they found were in fact created by humans, the patterns were only made of data," NOAA said.

Verdict: If it's real, you haven't found it yet.

5. Bermuda Triangle

The legend of the Bermuda Triangle (also known as the Devil's Triangle) describes a region of the Atlantic where ships and planes vanish. But on its website, the U.S. Coast Guard emphatically denies the existence of the triangle as a region of "specific hazard" to any ships and planes. In fact, the USCG says that a review of vehicle losses found "no extraordinary factors" relating to casualties or crashes. And NOAA -- noting that there are explanations for the supposed Devil's Triangle that are rooted in science -- cautions that there's no evidence for more disappearances in that region than anywhere else in the ocean.

Verdict: Not real

6. Santa Claus

Wondering where Santa Claus is every Christmas? The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) holds the answer with their annual Santa Tracker, which provides up-to-the-minute updates on where Father Christmas is delivering presents. The tradition started in 1955, when Sears posted an ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper with a number for children to call Santa. However, a misprint led to children actually calling a local Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center, a military precursor to NORAD. The on-duty colonel told everyone at the base to give any children who called a location for Santa. Today the location is given out through a Google Earth map on the NORAD Santa Tracker website.

Verdict: He's right there!

7. UFOs

The FBI's online vault contains a treasure trove of documents for UFO enthusiasts, detailing various investigations and general interest into unexplained objects. The UFO page contains many reports of events between 1947 and 1954, including some that touch on the Roswell crash. Their verdict? Just a weather balloon.

Verdict: Not real, but worth investigating.

8. The Mayan Apocalypse

The Roland Emmerich disaster movie 2012 was one of the many recent takes on the legend that the world would end this December, when the Mayan calendar supposedly runs out. But don't tell NASA. The agency has an entire Q&A page dedicated to debunking those rumors. The page calmly states that the calendar does not end in 2012, but merely begins another period. And the scientists declare that there are no planets, asteroids or stars set to crash into the Earth, nor is there a threat of the Earth completely reversing its rotation. "Impressive movie special effects aside, Dec. 21, 2012, won't be the end of the world as we know," NASA wrote. "It will, however, be another winter solstice."

Verdict: Not true

9. Alien Attacks

Pretty much every alien invasion movie scenario was covered in a 2011 paper written by a NASA scientist along with colleagues from Penn State, including the possibility that aliens could attack humans because we're wasteful. The report considered a number of scenarios for alien contacts, everything from them coming in peace to their desire for destruction. Many of them fell on the slightly boring side -- they could come and be unable to communicate with humans, or they could accidentally carry a deadly disease. To make sure things will be okay, the researchers say that the best course of action is to not broadcast out our biological information and stick to communicating on a mathematical level until any alien intentions become clear.

Verdict: It's possible

10. Vampires

While not an official government position, the U.S. Army has tried to play on the existence of vampires in the past. According to passages of the book "Counter-Guerrilla Operations" by Philippine colonel Napoleon Valeriano and U.S. military adviser Charles Bohannan, U.S. soldiers in the Philippines fighting an uprising of the Huk rebels would try to scare their enemy using the legend of the monster. They would kidnap the last man in a Huk patrol, poke two holes in his neck and drain his body of blood. When the Huk rebels found him the next day, they would fear that vampires were around and would leave.

Verdict: Believe it if you want

11. ESP

Also tucked into the FBI Vault was a file on extra-sensory perception. One memo describes an agent going to see a display of ESP and mind powers put on by a man named William Foos, encouraging the FBI to follow up. If the powers turned out to be real, he wrote, "there is no limit to the value which could accrue to the FBI," including reading mail and seeing through walls. Ultimately, however, the file shows that an investigation showed up no evidence of ESP and the original display turned out to be a series of tricks.

Verdict: Not real

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
How a Hairdresser Found a Way to Fight Oil Spills With Hair Clippings
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker made global news in 1989 when it dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off Alaska's coast. As experts were figuring out the best ways to handle the ecological disaster, a hairdresser from Alabama named Phil McCroy was tinkering with ideas of his own. His solution, a stocking stuffed with hair clippings, was an early version of a clean-up method that's used at real oil spill sites today, according to Vox.

Hair booms are sock-like tubes stuffed with recycled hair, fur, and wool clippings. Hair naturally soaks up oil; most of the time it's sebum, an oil secreted from our sebaceous glands, but it will attract crude oil as well. When hair booms are dragged through waters slicked with oil, they sop up all of that pollution in a way that's gentle on the environment.

The same properties that make hair a great clean-up tool at spills are also what make animals vulnerable. Marine life that depends on clean fur to stay warm can die if their coats are stained with oil that's hard to wash off. Footage of an otter covered in oil was actually what inspired Phil McCroy to come up with his hair-based invention.

Check out the full story from Vox in the video below.

[h/t Vox]

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