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.

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Emojipedia
9 Smiley Facts About Emoji
Emojipedia
Emojipedia

For many people, speaking in emoji is almost as natural as speaking in, well, words. However, less than two decades ago, the collection of symbols was just a blip on the digital horizon. You may be adept at planning dinner with friends using only smileys and food characters, but how much do you really know about emoji?

1. SHIGETAKA KURITA IS CONSIDERED THE FATHER OF EMOJI.

Getty Images

In 1999, the Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita created the first collection of cell phone emoji for the debut of "the world’s first major mobile internet system," called NTT Docomo's i-mode. The program they were working with "limited users to up to 250 characters in an email," according to Kurita, "so we thought emoji would be a quick and easy way for them to communicate. Plus using only words in such a short message could lead to misunderstandings … It’s difficult to express yourself properly in so few characters." He used a variety of everyday symbols, Chinese characters, street signs, and manga imagery for inspiration, and eventually came up with 176 12-pixel by 12-pixel characters—a much-simplified version of the images we now text on a regular basis.

"At first we were just designing for the Japanese market," Kurita said in 2016. "I didn’t assume that emoji would spread and become so popular internationally. I’m surprised at how widespread they have become. Then again, they are universal, so they are useful communication tools that transcend language."

2. THERE WAS A LOT OF DEBATE ABOUT THE ADDITION OF A HOT DOG.

Seriously. Digital Trends reported on the dispute in 2014, when some users were so incensed over the lack of a hot dog emoji that they even petitioned the White House to make it happen. As it turns out, there is a very good reason that the character wasn’t initially created.

"The problem with the hot dog emoji," Mark Davis, co-founder of the Unicode Consortium, told The Wall Street Journal, "is, what do you then want with the hot dog? Would we do one with ketchup or without?" He makes a valid point—toppings are important. But Kurita wasn’t opposed to adding in the traditional stateside cuisine: "In Japan, we have onigiri [rice ball] emoji, so why not hot dogs? Hot dogs are onigiri for Americans, right?"

(Not to worry—the hot dog won out in 2015, and Apple now has a mustard-covered emoji.)

3. EVEN KURITA IS MYSTIFIED BY THE AMBIGUITY OF THE HEART EMOJI.

"People of all ages understand that a single emoji can say more about their emotions than text," Kurita recently said of his creation. "Emoji have grown because they meet a need among mobile phone users. I accept that it’s difficult to use emoji to express complicated or nuanced feelings, but they are great for getting the general message across." However, even he acknowledges that messages can get mixed when it comes to emoji like the heart, even though he initially designed the heart to mean "love."

"I wouldn’t know if she liked me or not," Kurita told the Verge, when asked what he thinks receiving a heart emoji means, "but I’d think it was a good thing. I wouldn’t think it was a negative."

4. THE ENTIRETY OF MOBY-DICK WAS TRANSLATED INTO EMOJI.

In 2009, Fred Benenson—Kickstarter’s second full-time employee—used his company's platform to fund an emoji-translation project, which he titled Emoji Dick. Benenson was an avid fan of emoji and wanted to find a way to push the characters' creativity. He raised more than $3500 to pay a team to help him translate Herman Melville’s saga of man and whale into emoji. While it doesn’t quite translate in each case, Benenson told Smithsonian magazine, "As a conceptual piece, it’s successful."

But why Moby-Dick, besides the translation’s fantastic title? "I needed a public domain book that I could get the plain-text version of easily," Benenson told The New Yorker. "The Bible seemed too obvious."

These days, Emoji Dick has a place in the Library of Congress, who acquired the work in 2014 and notes that it captures the culture in this particular moment in time. "It’s up to the readers of Emoji Dick to decide whether to take it seriously as content," Michael Neubert, a digital projects specialist at the Library of Congress, said.

If you’re looking for some light reading, you can purchase a copy of the 736-page translation here.

5. EARLY ON, BUSINESSES USED EMOJI TO CONNECT WITH CUSTOMERS.

Keeping in mind that emoji launched in 1999, long before cell phones developed into the tech-savvy devices we have today, emoji originally had much different purposes. For example, The New York Times explains that Docomo, the company that developed emoji, used them to deliver weather reports to pager users.

While this explains many of the weather-related emoji, such as the lightning bolt, sun, umbrella, and snowman, Docomo also used the characters to guide users to local businesses. A hamburger represented fast food, while the martini glass stood for a bar.

"Everything was shown by text. Even the weather forecast was displayed as 'fine,'" Kurita told Storify. "When I saw it, I found it difficult to understand. Japanese TV weather forecasts have always included pictures or symbols to describe the weather—for example, a picture of sun meant 'sunny' … I'd rather see a picture of the sun, instead of a text saying 'fine.'"

6. THE MOST POPULAR EMOJI ISN'T THE SLICE OF PIZZA—OR THE THUMBS UP.

The most popular emoji vary from country to country. In July 2016, Metro reported that Twitter ran some analytics and says the "despairing crying face" is the most-used in the United States, Canada, and the U.K. Another popular choice is the musical notes, which is a top pick in Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina.

Additionally, Twitter users tend to favor the beer emoji over the steaming cup of coffee, and that the full heart is tweeted more frequently than the broken heart. When it comes to food, the birthday cake is most-used, followed by the classic slice of pizza, and the strawberry rounds out the top three.

The popularity of emoji is constantly in flux, so Twitter even did a month-by-month breakdown. Unsurprisingly, the skull was most-used in October, while the Christmas tree owned December. Another classic, the "100" symbol, was the most popular in November.

7. THERE'S A REASON THE IOS POOP EMOJI LOOKS SO SIMILAR TO THE ICE CREAM CONE.

In 2012, New York magazine interviewed Willem Van Lancker, who helped create 400 of the original 500 Apple characters. (The conversation took place over text, naturally.) When asked about the similarity between the poop and ice cream emoji, Van Lancker replied, "Some design elements may have been reused between them …"

8. THE FATHER OF EMOTICONS ISN'T A FAN OF EMOJI.

Long before emoji, people communicated with emoticons—representations of facial expressions created with punctuation marks. While emoji are undoubtedly the more detailed, colorful set of characters, Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Scott Fahlman tends to prefer his original form, which he traces to a 1982 message board conversation.

"I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways," Fahlman had told the group, and before long, the expression spread and was soon used at other universities before making its way into casual digital conversations worldwide.

But when it comes to emoji, Fahlman told the Independent, "I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters. But perhaps that's just because I invented the other kind."

9. THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART OWNS THE ORIGINAL EMOJI COLLECTION.

Getty

Yep, the set of emoji Kurita created back in 1999 is now part of MoMA’s permanent display, starting in December 2016. And they aren't the only digital objects on display: The museum previously acquired the "@" symbol in 2012.

The collection resides in the museum’s lobby and represents a balance between modernity and hieroglyphics, one of the oldest forms of written communication. However, as ancient as the roots of emoji may be, the original collection's influence in modern culture remains strong. "It is hard to overstate it. I mean if you think about it, we cannot live without emojis today," Paola Antonelli, the senior curator in the department of architecture and design, told NPR. "We've become used into condensing our thoughts and our kind of emotions in them."

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iStock
Your New York City Library Card Now Gets You Free Admission to 33 Museums and Cultural Sites
iStock
iStock

Your New York City library card is good for more than checking out books and downloading music. Starting this summer, your card will get you free admission to 33 cultural institutions around the city, The New York Times reports.

New York's public library system is rolling out its Culture Pass program in an effort to make the city's world-renowned museums and cultural centers more accessible to residents. As long as you have a card from the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, or the Queens Library systems, you can visit Culturepass.nyc and use your card number to reserve a ticket. Participating organizations include the the Brooklyn Children's Museum, the Intrepid Air & Space Museum, Wave Hill, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim Museum.

Some of the locations on the list are already free without the suggested donation, but others can get pricey. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, costs $25 for adults. Using Culture Pass does come with a few catches: Passes are limited, so if you wait until the last minute you may not be able to reserve one for your preferred day. Cardholders also can only use Culture Pass once per year at each institution, but depending on where they go they can make the most of it: At some organizations like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, a pass is good for entry for up to four guests.

New York isn't the only area that offers free museum tickets to anyone with a library card. Members of public library systems in SeattleNew Jersey, and Los Angeles County, and kids in Chicago, can take advantage of similar programs. And even if your library card can't get you into cultural institutions, it can likely get you other perks you may not be aware of.

[h/t The New York Times]

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