CLOSE
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"People Have Been Killed for Less": The Bizarre Letters Sent to Presidential Science Advisors

NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

John Kennedy thought he had made some remarkable discoveries. It was April 1971, and the Pompano Beach, Florida, resident wasn't sure what to do with his revelations, which dealt with “a dynamic new theory of gravity." He needed advice—so he sent a letter to the White House.

“Gravity can be cancelled or controlled electronically!” Kennedy wrote, noting that he didn't have the “know-how” to build an apparatus using these concepts, but that it could be built for under $100. “I am trying to find someone to build it, but because of the vital nature of such a discovery I hardly know whom to trust," he said, closing, "People have been killed for less.”

Kennedy's letter ended up on the desk of Edward E. David, Jr., the science advisor to President Richard Nixon. David was the ninth person to hold the position, which had taken shape in the period after World War II. It eventually became a full-time position in 1957, after the Soviet launch of Sputnik sent the American government into a tizzy of scientific activity. Nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the burgeoning field of biomedical research, the imminent space race—the growing list of scientific demands on the government, and in particular on the president’s role in these efforts, required a steady expert hand nearby. The advisors have played a large role in formation of policy over the years—with some fits and starts along the way, including a dark period when President Nixon simply abolished the position, and today, when no advisor has even been nominated.

1970 letter sent to the White House science advisor
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

But along with the standard parts of the science advisors’ job, they held another, far less pressing role: answering the strange, grandiose, and often outright crazy scientific ideas sent in from around the country.

The strangest thing about Kennedy’s letter may be how common it was. A journey through the archives of a few presidential libraries reveals many examples of people claiming to have grand new discoveries that will change the course of history. For example, William J. Dowling, of Oklahoma City, wrote in 1969 to announce that he had established a brand-new field of science, which he called psychokinesiology. No particular details about this field were offered, but he wrote, “When the nature, scope and accuracy of the findings and application of this science are generally known, the knowledge will be subject to countless radiant ramifications of its importance.”

A telegram, also in 1969, arrived from Louis Wargo, of Hyattsville, Maryland, following multiple other notes about various fields of science. It screamed: “YOU NEED ME I CAN BRING A SOCIALLY SICK NATION TOGETHER AND ALSO A SCIENTIFIC WORLD TOGETHER AND PUT MANS FATE BACK IN THE HANDS OF GOD.”

Most often, these letters and telegrams were addressed to the president himself (Mr. Wargo actually began by contacting the First Lady, Pat Nixon), but at the first mention of scientific concepts the White House staff presumably shuttled them off to the office of the science advisor. And, in the polite atmosphere of yesteryear, the science advisor often wrote back. “I want you to know that President Nixon very much appreciates your letter to him regarding the discoveries you believe you have made in the field of sound detection,” wrote Lee A. DuBridge, Nixon’s first advisor, to Mabel Carroll Boyle, of Glendale, California. Ms. Boyle had written in an almost tragically shaky hand on the stationery of Glen Manor Convalescent Center regarding her supposed discoveries.

1969 letter sent to the White House science advisor
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

A few themes would grace the advisors’ desks again and again. “I have been in the process of perfecting a mathematical system of pre information [sic] on earthquake [sic] if my theory proves important I hope to offer it to the United States government later on,” telegrammed Ethel Harriet Mercer of Santa Monica, California. She believed serious earthquakes were on their way in “Italy China also California.” But not to worry—“Japan Alaska South America Mexico Australia Canada” were safe. She would write again a month later, noting that her “preinformation system” now included volcanoes. Our friend Louis Wargo, who could heal a sick nation, also believed he could predict earthquakes, as did numerous others.

Then there were the energy mavens: DIY scientists who claimed to have solved the world’s problems, most of whom proposed to violate a not-insignificant number of the laws of thermodynamics. D.A. Kelly, a project manager from Technidyne Associates in Clearwater, Florida, wrote to Ronald Reagan’s advisor George A. Keyworth about “devices which produce more output power than the input power levels.” (The same company, apparently, would push cold fusion ideas to the Department of Energy a few years later [PDF].)

Nicholas A. Besse, of parts unknown, wrote in June 1971, “I think we have the answer to your problem because we have developed a pollution free fuel not made from oil. Our biggest concern now is how to reveal this marvelous product to the public without the oil companies burying us alive both figuratively and literally.” The advisor wrote back suggesting private funding was required.

Eduardo Villasenor de Rivas wrote in 1972, “I have a new, economical form of producing electricity which will solve the national power shortage.” The power source was supposedly clean and would last 1000 years. With infinite patience, the science advisor replied, “On the basis of your letter it is not clear what technologies you have in mind.”

Letter addressed to the White House science advisor from Technidyne
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

Some ideas seem strangely prescient today. Eugene J. Angeledes, of Poray Associates in La Habra, California, wrote in about his novel ideas for a propulsion technology for use on a submarine. He called it the “Stawarz Jet Propulsion System.” It was 1971—six years before Star Wars was released. The science advisor wrote back, “wish[ing] you success in the development at hand.”

And sometimes, the letter writers didn’t even bother to restrict themselves to energy, or earthquakes, or any specific field, but instead claimed to have solved … well, everything? Hard to say, honestly. “We are a scientific organization which, after some 30 years of intensive research, testing, proving and application, has broken new ground in the science of man, presently being prepared for international announcement,” wrote R. Lachar, president of a Detroit entity known as the sinister-sounding Lachar Directorate. “Our discoveries and methods could not only save billions of dollars but are capable of providing the scientific basis for a complete reconstruction of society within an incredibly short period of time.” Once again, the president’s science advisor wrote back to Mr. Lachar politely and, at least it seemed, sincerely, asking to see more details of these supposed findings.

In a way, the advisor acts as the government’s scientific face, absorbing the public’s anxieties and desires about the future of humanity, manifested in these Hail Mary communiqués. There is no indication that any actually received any sort of official attention beyond those polite letters in return, and thankfully, no indication that John Kennedy of Pompano Beach, or anyone else, was killed for their groundbreaking discoveries.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
arrow
entertainment
Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

nextArticle.image_alt|e
arrow
fun
New Book Highlights the World's Most Depressing Place Names

If you like a little ennui with your wanderlust, we've got a book for you.

As Hyperallergic reports, the popular Instagram account @sadtopographies recently got the coffee table book treatment with the beautiful and gloomy Triste Tropique, Topographies of Sadness. Since 2015, master of misery Damien Rudd has been compiling Google Maps screen shots of real-life locales like Melancholy Lane, Mistake Island, Hopeless Way, and Cape Disappointment on the social media platform. Scrolling through them will make you laugh and marvel at how these names even came to be.

Created in collaboration with French publisher Jean Boîte Éditions, Triste Tropique includes 89 locales accompanied by amusingly poetic captions (called "romances" by the publisher) from writer Cécile Coulon. "Anyway, does it even really exist?" she writes of Doubtful Island. Each place is printed to scale with its exact location provided. The title is a reference to another glum book: Tristes Tropiques by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

This isn't the first time @sadtopographies has been made into a book; last year's Sad Topographies: A Disenchanted Travellers' Guide delved further into the origins of depressing place names. "I have not been to, nor is it likely I will visit, any of the places in this book," Rudd wrote in that 2017 title, but perhaps you'll feel differently.

See the cover, featuring Disappointment Island, below. While you're at it, check out 14 of the most depressing place names in North America here.

Triste Tropique, Topographies of Sadness cover
Jean Boîte Éditions

[h/t Hyperallergic]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios