The Order of the Dolphin and the birth of SETI

Let us look for this new article at the Order of the Dolphin and the birth of SETI. In 1961, when UFOs were all the rage, a group of top scientific minds met in secret at a rural observatory in West Virginia. At the time, the Green Bank Observatory was the biggest telescope in the burgeoning practice of radio astronomy. While the list of meeting attendees now reads like a who’s who of the era’s luminaries, the reason they gathered covertly was because of the taboo nature of their topic of discussion. These scientists wanted to find, and talk to, aliens. They didn’t know it, but they were about to launch the modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.

Let’s back up a moment. In 1958, a newly minted Harvard Ph.D. named Frank Drake came to Green Bank. Usually, he sought out typical radio astronomy targets – the Van Allen Belts around Earth, say, or the surface temperature of Venus, or the radiation belts of Jupiter. But one day in 1960, Frank Drake and his colleagues instead tuned into two nearby stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Their goal was simple: they were alien hunting, hoping to hear radio communications originating from intelligent extraterrestrials. UFOs were popular then, but Drake’s research was legitimate, one of the first dedicated scientific searches for aliens. Frank Drake had been spurred on by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, who the previous year had co-authored a Nature paper with the provocative title “Searching for Interstellar Communications”. It remains a foundational SETI text. Much to Drake’s surprise, his team actually heard something in those first few experiments. Unfortunately, it ended up being just a high altitude plane. Project Ozma, as the research was called (after Lyman Frank Baum’s fictional Princess Ozma), was both the first SETI experiment and the first SETI false alarm. “We had failed to detect a genuine alien signal, it was true, but we had succeeded in demonstrating that searching was a feasible, and even reasonable, thing to do” Drake wrote in his book Is Anyone Out There?, co-written with science writer Dava Sobel. While Frank Drake was launching some of the first SETI programs, John Lilly – a physician, philosopher, writer and inventor – was attempting to communicate with his own alien intelligence. He just wasn’t looking quite as far.

Humans are, in fact, surrounded by intelligence. Our fellow great apes understand the rudiments of language, and seem to possess highly organised social structures, tool-making skills and self-awareness. Creatures literally great and small – elephants and crows – have many of these qualities as well. Intelligent life isn’t isolated to land, either. The octopus brain is one of the most remarkable on Earth, and its close cousin, the cuttlefish, is no slouch either. But the superstars of the sea, to most humans, are marine mammals, especially dolphins and whales. John Lilly wanted to understand and communicate with dolphins – literally, to speak their language. And his ideas were taken seriously. He founded the Communication Research Institute in the late 1950s, and published research suggesting that his attempts to talk to dolphins were working. He also saw the experiments as a way to help efforts to contact aliens. If we can crack the code of dolphin language, John Lilly thought, we might just have a shot at decoding other alien communications, too. Now, back to that clandestine 1961 meeting at Green Bank.

The Space Science Board, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, had tasked scientist and ballistics expert J. P. T. Pearman with putting together a meeting to expand the search for alien intelligence. While it wasn’t officially a secret meeting, it wasn’t well publicised either, since the topic was still considered one of the fringes of established research. No one wanted to put their career on the line to search for little green men. Counting J. P. T. Pearman, the gathering included ten scientists. Frank Drake and John Lilly were there, of course, as well as Drake’s inspiration Philipp Morrison. Also in attendance were experts Dana Atchley, pre-eminent biochemist, Melvin Calvin, optical astronomer, Su-Shu Huang (who first proposed the concept of “habitable zones”), computing pioneer Bernard M. Oliver and Russian astronomer Otto Struve. The final attendee was a young Carl Sagan, now perhaps the best known of the bunch. The biggest outcome of the conference was the Drake equation. To know if aliens were out there, it helped to have an idea of how abundant they might be. The equation quantified estimates of star formation, planet formation, the likelihood of intelligent life arising and other factors necessary for intelligent life to exist.

Despite its output of hard numbers, the Drake equation is more symbolic than descriptive, a thoughtful tool to guide how scientists should think about looking for alien life. It set the tone for SETI and how it would be carried out in the subsequent decades, and offered a way forward for research that combined various legitimate scientific disciplines. As it happened, Melvin Calvin won the Nobel Prize, and the attendees indeed busted out the bubbly. But John Lilly became another star of the show. Drake would write that “Much of that first day, he regaled us with tales of his bottlenose dolphins, whose brains, he said, were larger than ours and just as densely packed with neurons. Some parts of the dolphin brain looked even more complex than their human counterparts, he averred. Clearly, more than one intelligent species had evolved on Earth”. John Lilly told the attendees he also heard signs of language, and empathy, in recordings of the dolphins. “In fact, if we slowed down the playback speed of the tape recorder enough, the squeaks and clicks sounded like human language. We were all totally enthralled by these reports. We felt some of the excitement in store for us when we encounter nonhuman intelligence of extraterrestrial origin”. John Lilly’s research generated so much excitement that, by the end of the conference, the attendees called themselves the Order of the Dolphin. Calvin, in his post-Nobel joy, even went on to send commemorative pins to the attendees. “He caused to be made these little pins which had silver dolphins on them, which he sent to all of us. It wasn’t that we ever had meetings or chose officers of the Order of the Dolphin. It was just a souvenir of the particular time together”.

Their excitement may have been a little hasty. In retrospect, Frank Drake wrote: “I now think that Lilly’s work was poor science. He had probably distilled endless hours of recordings to select those little bits that sounded human-like”. “At that time, we were quite enthusiastic about it because John Lilly came and told us about communications with dolphins. Within a few years, the subject had pretty much dissipated, and Lilly’s work was not found to be reliable”. Shortly after the Order of the Dolphin meeting, Lilly began incorporating ketamine and LSD (legal at the time) into his experiments, hoping it would help him communicate better with dolphins. While Carl Sagan visited the early experiments, reporting back to Drake on Lilly’s progress, as the science became hazier, Sagan’s interest drifted as well. The work has tainted attempts to understand the intelligence of dolphins ever since. But while he may have veered into the realm of pseudo-science, Lilly did provide one useful guideline for future SETI efforts. “We came to a general conclusion, that in order to make any sense out of an alien language, you had to hear a conversation between two of them. You had to sit between them and hear a call and a response. You couldn’t just hear one side of the conversation, you couldn’t just receive”. This is what can be said concerning the Order of the Dolphin and the birth of SETI.