"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.

5 Weird 1960s Covers for Classic Novels

Chaloner Woods/Getty Images
Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

There are a lot of weird and bad book covers for the classics out there, and the Internet has delighted in chronicling them.

Some are designed to mimic the look of current blockbusters, like these Twilight-style covers for novels by Jane Austen and the Brontës. Others rely on bad stock photos and inept Photoshopping for classic works that have crossed into the public domain, from The Scarlet Pimpernel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The subset of covers for 1960s paperbacks is rich with particularly hideous findings, mostly from Penguin and Signet Classics. Shockingly, they're not made by untalented people who are bad at Photoshop. These covers were drawn by established, objectively talented, and sometimes famous illustrators like graphic design legend Milton Glaser. They were purposely executed in unorthodox, interpretive styles. But although they may be done by respected artists, their aesthetic value remains questionable. Take a look at some of the strangest below.

1. THE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD // 1962

The Great Gatsby cover by John Sewell
Courtesy of Setana Books

In the baffling jacket for this Jazz Age classic, a man’s face is stretched bizarrely sideways. He appears to be wearing thick eyeliner and has some serious wrinkles around his eyes. But, let's back up for a minute: Who is this supposed to be? Surely not the title character; Gatsby doesn’t have a bald patch or a unibrow. One Twitter user who collects Gatsby editions considers this specimen to be the "oddest" one he owns.

The artist, John Sewell, was a British graphic designer working in the '60s whose print covers usually involved colored paper cut-outs. He did a cover in a similar style for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, but that one is a little less weird.

2. OUR MUTUAL FRIEND BY CHARLES DICKENS // 1964

cover of Our Mutual Friend by Seymour Chwast
Courtesy of swallace99, Flickr.

The artist here is Seymour Chwast, who, along with Milton Glaser, co-founded the postmodern collective Push Pin Studios in 1954. The Push Pin style "reject[s] tradition in favor of reinvigorated interpretations of historical styles," as their website states.

And yet, the people on this cover are hideous. The eyebrows on Our Mutual Friend's Gaffer Hexam (the man in the white shirt) are at a sharp 45-degree angle, a trait rarely found in nature. Lizzie Hexam, who’s supposed to be beautiful, also looks pretty wretched.

According to the artist's biography on the Seymour Chwast Archive, "Each of his imaginary characters (even portraits of real individuals) have similar facial features—round lips, slits for eyes, bulbous noses. They never scowl, yet they are not cute." That's for sure. A quick browse through his work shows that naturalism was never his goal.

3. ADAM BEDE BY GEORGE ELIOT // 1961

Adam Bede cover by James Hill
Courtesy of swallace99, Flickr

Why is Adam Bede's hand bigger than his face? And his arm bigger than his waist? What would George Eliot think?

This one is by James Hill, the first Canadian to become a member of the American Illustrators Association. His work ranged from lurid, pulpy book covers to treatments for classics like this one to a series of paintings inspired by Anne of Green Gables.

4. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT BY FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY // 1968

Crime and Punishment cover

Courtesy of Felt Books

The 1960s produced many psychedelic book covers, and this style spilled over into reprints of the classics. On this Dostoyevsky opus, a guy's face is replaced by a groovy rainbow with a figure in a coffin inside. While the artist is unknown, the rainbow design echoes the style of several graphic designers of the 1960s.

5. HARD TIMES BY CHARLES DICKENS // 1961

Hard Times cover
Courtesy of ElwoodAnd Eloise, Etsy

This cover for Charles Dickens's grim tale of Victorian inequality was designed by Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast's partner in Push Pin Studios. Glaser also designed the I Love New York logo and a Bob Dylan poster that depicts the singer with a rainbow 'fro. A versatile artist, his work includes logos, posters, interior design, magazine illustrations, and, of course, book covers. But here, the heavy cross-hatching on the figures' faces, hair, and clothes nudges them into werewolf territory. The psychedelic winged horse seems like a nod to the Summer of Love, but a tavern called the Pegasus's Arms actually figures prominently in the book.

This Pop Culture Guide to Proofreading Marks Will Help You Write the Perfect Essay

Pop Culture Lab
Pop Culture Lab

Regardless of your profession, proofreading is an important skill to know. A round of revisions will help you express yourself more clearly and eloquently, and penning a perfectly punctuated letter is an underrated art form. Proofreading marks will help you edit more efficiently, but navigating all those squiggles and dots can feel like learning a foreign language.

Here to help is Pop Chart Labs, which used pop culture references to create a fun guide to proofreading marks. As for the Oxford comma—whose use is hotly debated among punctuation purists—the chart makers rule in favor of it. “The movies Kill Bill, While You Were Sleeping, and 28 Days Later are all punctuated by important comas,” the comma section of the poster reads.

The chart
Pop Chart Lab

“I’m Ron Burgundy?” (an Anchorman reference) falls under the question mark category, and “Nobody puts baby in a corner” (Dirty Dancing) is given as an example of text centering.

“Let Beyonce teach you about flushing left (to the left), Italian stereotypes from The Simpsons illustrate ital-ics, Michael Scott portray the pain of having your edits and/or vasectomies reversed, and all too many Game of Thrones characters demonstrate deletion (warning: SPOILERS),” Pop Chart Lab writes in its description of the poster.

With this chart on your wall, you’ll never miss the mark. The 18-inch-by-24-inch poster costs $29 and is currently available for pre-order on Pop Chart Lab's website. Shipping starts October 3.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER