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Professor Garry Nolan talks UFOs, ‘alien mummies’ and anomalous brain areas with Lex Fridman

In recent months, as the Joe Rogan Experience podcast has undergone a number of controversies and perhaps suffered from a reduction in visibility due to his exclusive deal with Spotify (and thus less videos on YouTube), one of his proteges of sorts has conversely been moving forward in leaps and bounds.

The Lex Fridman podcast, like JRE, is usually a one-on-one chat between the host and a guest – although, in this case, rather than a comedian/UFC jock, the host is an MIT computer scientist/AI researcher. Fridman is, however – like Rogan – also a UFC/BJJ enthusiast…and he also shares Joe Rogan’s interest in a number of the outre topics that we discuss here on the Grail, such as UFOs, and ideas that challenge the paradigm.

As such, it’s worth paying attention to his podcast both (a) as a great resource for interesting interviews on Grail-related topics, and (b) as a current cultural force spreading word about these ideas (Fridman’s podcast episodes receive 1,000,000+ views on YouTube alone).

One such recent interview guest was Professor Garry Nolan, a highly-credentialed/respected scientist from Stanford University with numerous patents to his name, who also has an interest in the study of anomalies. I recently wrote about a paper that Nolan and Jacques Vallee published on alleged materials ejected from UFOs, and we also previously covered his investigation of the ‘Atacama alien mummy’. (Nolan has also been established to be the eponymous ‘James’ from Diana Walsh Pasulka’s American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion and Technology.)

The Fridman-Nolan discussion centres on UFOs but also other anomalous topics, and how Nolan – as a scientist – sees his role, and science in general, in engaging with these subjects and on the necessity of speculating and thinking outside the box.

You can view the interview below – but if you don’t have time to watch it in its entirety, I’ve also marked sections of interest and pulled out some quotes (with approximate timestamps) after the video embed.

0:00 – The interview begins with a big ‘ridiculous’ philosophical question from Fridman about DNA and information: “what is the most beautiful or fascinating aspect of human biology at the level of the human cell?”

Nolan’s answer: “The micro-machines and the nano-machines that proteins make and become – that to me is the most interesting. The fact that you have this basically dynamic computer within every cell that’s constantly processing its environment. And at the heart of it is DNA which is a dynamic machine, a dynamic computation process people think of the dna as a linear code it’s codes within codes within codes and it is the actually the epigenetic state that’s doing this amazing processing.”

“I mean if you ever wanted to believe in God,” Nolan says, “just look inside the cell.”

(He later notes that he doesn’t know if he actually believes in God, but “but if you want to believe in something: the universe was created or at least enabled to allow for life to form”.)

Continues discussing DNA, and how it stores massive amounts of information.

6:30 – Fridman asks “How many alien civilisations do you think are out there?” Nolan: “Innumerable. I would just be surprised – what a waste of all that space, just for us.” Remembers looking at a picture of the universe when he was young and thinking “what kinds of empires have risen and fallen across that space that we’ll never know about, and isn’t that sad, to not know about something so grand.”

8:00 – Nolan tells how he was/is inspired by ideas from science fiction, especially those writers who based their thoughts on evolution. Mentions Larry Niven and David Brin as exemplars.

10:45 – The UFO topic is introduced. Fridman asks “what is most fascinating to you about the UFO stories that people have told you?” Nolan answers: “The uniformity of the stories.”

Nolan offers an excellent caveat before beginning his discussion on the UFO topic, touching on being clear that speculation is important and does not equate to belief.

I just want to say up front: a lot of people think that when I speculate I believe something. That’s not true – speculation is just creativity, speculation is the beginning of hypothesis. None of what I hear in terms of the anecdotes do I necessarily believe…but I still find them fascinating to listen to because at some level they’re still raw data – and you have to listen, and once you start to hear the same story again and again then you have to say well there might be something to it.

12:30 – Nolan says he is fascinated with UFO cases that include messages about ecological collapse. Mentions Zimbabwe school children contact story. Fridman asks “Did it actually happen?” Nolan replies (around 16:20):”I think they saw what they said they saw. But I also think they saw what they were shown.”

17:30 – Nolan on extraterrestrials possibly being here, but disguising themselves and just guiding rather than appearing. “I think that like any good parent you don’t tell your student everything. You make them learn and learning requires mistakes because if you tell them everything then they get lazy”.

18:00 – Discussion turns to his analysis of the brains of people who had UFO encounters. Nolan (somewhat curiously) says the research actually began with individuals who appear to have had ‘Havana Syndrome’.

So the the study started with a cohort of individuals that were brought to me and their MRIs to ask about the damage that had been seen in these individuals. It turns out that the majority of those patients ended up being as far as we can tell Havana Syndrome, and so for me at least…that part of the story ends. In terms of the injury it’s likely almost all Havana Syndrome – that’s somebody else’s problem now that’s not my problem – but when we were looking at the brains of these individuals we noticed something. Right in the center of the basal ganglia in many of these individuals, that at first we thought was damage, it was basically an enriched patch of MRI dense neurons that we thought was damage. But then it was showing up in everybody and then we looked and said oh it’s actually not. The other readings on these MRIs show that actually that’s living tissue…that’s actually the head of the caudate putamen.

Nolan then moves on to the claims made in the UFO community that the research identified anomalies in the brains of those who see UFOs:

So what we think we found there was *not* something which allows people to talk to UFOs – I mean I think the UFO community took it a step too far – what I think we found was a form of higher functioning and processing. So what we then looked at – and this was the most fascinating part of it – we looked then at individuals in the families [of those they analyzed]…and we found that it was actually in families. And moreso, this is the most fascinating part – we’ve probably looked now at about 200 just random cases that you can download off of databases online – this higher connectivity, you only find it in what Kit Green would have called or has called higher functioning individuals…he he called them savants.

Nolan then goes on to outline how this might be restricted to certain individuals through genetics, and says of the ‘ability’ that “if intuition is the ability to see something that other people don’t – and I don’t mean that in a paranormal sense, but being able to see something just in front of you that other people might just dismiss – well maybe that’s a function of a higher kind of intelligence, to say well…I’m not looking at something that I should just ignore, I’m seeing something and I recognize it for not what it is but that it is something different than is normally found in my environment”.

Fridman identifies with this idea, noting “some people are probably more receptive to anomalous information – they see the magic, the possibility in the novel thing…some people are more, ‘wait a minute this is kind of weird’…I mean a lot of those people probably become scientists too. Like there’s this pattern happening over and over and over and then something weird just happened and then you get excited by that weirdness and start to pull the string and discover what is at the core of that weirdness”.

27:30 – Nolan notes how different witnesses to UFO sightings often see different things, “almost as if whatever it is, is projecting something into the mind, rather than it being a real manifestation, material, in front of you”.

28:45 – Fridman puts forward an interesting thought about advanced intelligences possibly having ways to overlay an augmented reality of sorts on experiencers.

From an alien perspective…how does this perception system operate so not only how does this thing’s mind operate, how does the human mind operate, but how does their perception system operate so that we can stimulate the perception system properly to get them to think certain things.

Nolan then riffs on this.

33:00 – Question about (Tic-Tac UFO witness) David Fravor. Nolan notes that he’s friends with Fravor and many others involved in the recent UFO releases, including Lue Elizondo and Chris Mellon: “I saw the videos about three weeks or so before they went public,” he tells Fridman. “I was at a bar with Lue overlooking the Pentagon in Crystal City and they showed them to me, and my hair stood on end. He said ‘this is coming out soon’. And I know one of the guys on the inside who was the Naval Intelligence who had interviewed all these pilots…it was hair-raising.”

34:45 – Fridman offers some excellent thoughts on why we should engage with anomalies in science:

This is why its nice to remove the stigma about this topic, because it’s all just data, and anomalous events are such that they’re going to be rare in how much data they represent…if we pull at it, will we discover it’s extraterrestrial or something deep about the phenomenon on Earth that we don’t yet understand.

Nolan chimes in: “If it only stimulates [people to ask those questions, e.g. how UFOs move like that]…” Fridman finishes Nolan’s thought: “It’s a powerful way to think ‘what is possible’, it’s inspiring. Even if some of the data doesn’t represent ET craft…considering the possibility of these things opens up your mind in a way that ultimately can create the technology. First you have to believe the technology is possible before you can create it.”

Nolan comments that this process is exactly what happens in his lab all the time, creating instruments/tech based on what new area he needs to explore. “I’ve started and sold a half dozen or more companies on that basic premise.”

40:10 – Nolan: “As I’ve said before, alien means alien. Not Hollywood aliens, but a whole different way of thinking and a whole different level of experience.”

41:30 – Fridman: “It expands the Overton Window“.

45:30 – Discussion of the difficulties in advanced aliens communicating concepts to us. Fridman compares advanced aliens trying to communicate concepts with us, with “talking to the ants about Instagram. ‘You want to look good in this picture, let me explain to you why.'” This thought cracks Fridman up.

Nolan expands on this thought: “You could see how religions would call them angels or devils or what-have-you, because if you’re trying to fit it into the framework of cultural understanding the first thing you reach for is God.”

47:45 – Discussion turns to Nolan’s scientific analysis of Steven Greer’s ‘Atacama alien’ skeleton. “I went into it originally thinking it was a monkey,” Nolan confesses.

Nolan notes that this investigation was in some aspects outside his sphere of expertise. “You go to an expert when it’s outside your field of interest,” he says.

51:00 – Nolan tells of the pushback he got from true believers when the results showed that the skeleton was human. “The sad part about it was individuals in the UFO community who wanted to think it was some sort of conspiracy around it – somebody had somehow convinced all of my students to lie. I mean, c’mon.”

This is what bothers me with the current distrust of science: [scientists] might be naive, they might not, especially in modern science, look at the big picture – philosophical, ethical questions – but ultimately they are people with integrity and deep curiosity for the discovery of cool little things…there’s no malevolence broadly speaking.

Nolan then expands on the relationship between science and a populace that is interested in anomalies: “There’s a bigger story here, which is: there’s a hunger in the populace to discover something anomalous, something new – and science has to be both open to the anomalous but also to reject the anomalous when the data doesn’t support it.”

53:15 – Also discusses the ‘Starchild skull’, which Nolan after looking at the DNA sequencing also determined to be human. “It’s not about debunking, it’s about getting the hyped cases off the table…it’s usually the most extravagant things that are most likely to be wrong. Somewhere in the rubble will be something interesting…so that’s what you do, you get the dross off the table.”

55:00 – Fridman brings up Nolan’s research on materials alleged to be from UFOs: “You’ve also looked at UFO materials. You’re in possession of UFO materials yourself.” Nolan is quick to clarify: “Claimed UFO materials. Alleged.”

There are almost always things that people have claimed have either been dropped off, like some sort of a leftover material… molten metals…or they are from an object that kind of exploded…they’re almost always metals. I have a couple of things that might be biological that are interesting. When you look at a metal you basically [ask] what are the elements in it, and what’s it made of, and so there’s pretty standard approaches to doing that, and most of them involve a technology called mass spectrometry. …In the case of elements, how many different isotopes are there? And and that’s kind of where in some of these cases it gets interesting, right? Because in at least one of the materials as we first studied it the isotope ratios of – in this case it was magnesium – are way off normal and I just don’t know why. It doesn’t it doesn’t prove anything it just all it proves is that it was probably accomplished by some kind of an industrial process.

1:03:00 – Discusses the material from the Ubatuba UFO case. Given the decades since that case, Nolan notes jokingly that if the materials are a hoax, it’s definitely a “long term troll”.

He goes on to note that any analysis of the materials can’t be considered hard evidence for alien craft, but that the analysis is still worthwhile as an initial step: “Is this sufficient evidence? Absolutely not. But somebody’s put it forward, I have the time, it’s my time, I’ll study it and my objective is to sort of take those that I think are credible enough and do a reasonable analysis, put it out there and maybe somebody else will come up with an idea as to what it is.”

Fridman: “Again I think showing up with technology that we humans would find completely novel is actually a really difficult task for aliens because it obviously can’t be so novel that we don’t recognize it for what it is. So I would say most the technology aliens likely have would be something we don’t recognize…it’s actually a hard problem how to convince ants, like you first have to understand what ants are tweeting about, like what they care about, in order to inject into their culture.”

1:06:15 – Discussion of Jacques Vallee. Nolan notes that “the first thing that I learned from him is this notion of what he called kabuki theater…I remember reading his books and thinking he uses this word ‘absurd’ a lot. He said the the things that people claim they see are absurd, right? A ship doesn’t land in a farmer’s field and then [an alien] come up and knock on the door and say ‘can I have a glass of water?’…it’s absurd.”

“So he says this is put on as a show – it’s an influence campaign, right? It’s not meant to influence individuals, it’s meant to influence a culture as a whole.”

1:11:00 – Thoughts on last year’s government report on UFOs. Nolan: “I see it as very helpful…the adults are finally stepping up and being in charge…I think it was an important sea-change in the internal discussions going on in the government.”

What you’re seeing is kind of an ecosystem building up in a positive sense of people who are willing to do the research. Before you couldn’t even go to a scientist and ask them to help.

1:14:00 – Some discussion about the need for wide scale data collection on UFOs, an order of magnitude beyond what we currently do. Fridman notes though that the easiest way to do that is to make it a defence issue, but that comes with drawbacks: “If you make it about ‘what are the Russians, what are the Chinese doing?’ – you know, make it a question of geopolitics, it gets touchy, because now you’re kind of taken away from the realm of science and making it military… This is what makes me as an engineer truly sad – that some of the greatest engineering work ever done is by Lockheed Martin, and we will never know about it.”

1:21:30 – Fridman asks a question about the government having something even more impressive “of extraterrestrial origin” in their possession. Nolan says “I’ve not seen anything personally, but if I believe the people who I don’t think can lie, then…yes.”

Some discussion of government secrecy on the UFO topic follows.

1:26:00 – Does he believe the Bob Lazar story? Nolan: “I don’t believe in the Bob Lazar story to be quite honest.”

Nolan goes on to note that he prefers looking at cases that have data or material he can analyze, rather than historical stories:

I’m less interested in going over old paperwork and all these old histories of who said what – you know, the whole he said she said of the history of UFOs. I’m a scientist, I worked on the brain area because it’s something I can collect data on, I can go back to the same individual and collect their MRI again and redo it. I can hand that MRI to somebody else, they can analyze it. I can get materials. I can analyze them. I can get some of these skeletons – I won’t touch any skeletons ever again, but I can analyze it and somebody else can reproduce the data. That’s what I’m good at…I’m not a historian.

1:29:00 – Discussion turns to Avi Loeb and the mystery of ‘Oumuamua’. Nolan notes that he has just joined up with Loeb’s ‘Galileo Project‘.

1:33:00 – Fridman asks Nolan what advice he would give to young scientists about researching things outside the mainstream. Nolan replies, “if you believe in something, you believe that an idea is valuable, or you haven’t approached something, don’t let others shame you into not doing it. As I’ve said, shame is a societal control device to get other people to do what they want you to do, rather than what you want to do.”

I’ve never let people who’ve told me ‘you shouldn’t do that line of science, you should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking that’ – give me a break. Why is it wrong to ask questions about this area? What’s wrong with asking the question? Frankly you’re the person who’s wrong for trying to stop these questions, you’re the person who’s almost acting like a cultist, you basically have closed your mind to what the possibilities are. And if I’m not hurting anybody and if it could lead to an advance and if it’s my time – why does it bother you?

Nolan: “I just point to my successes…I reverse shame them.”

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