Wednesday, September 7, 2011
the rider pauses to reflect
Although the NASA space shuttle program finished its last mission this summer telescopes on earth and in space have continued to watch the stars. The scientists who operate the Kepler Space Telescope announced a bonanza of distant planets earlier this year, reconfirming that solar systems, some possibly hosting life, are common in the universe. It seems that water is very prevalent in space as are stars with solar systems - more than 700 have been discovered already.
Naturally, once we start thinking about other rocky planets similar in make-up to our own our thoughts will naturally turn to the idea there may be beings that live on them. It's true that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence has been going on for about 50 years with the advent of SETI and its search for radio signals. Of course, it would be fascinating if beings from another civilization actually did get in touch but it seems to me even more likely that intelligent life on other planets simply has no interest in or physical ability to manipulate technology. Space is such an enormous concept that to my knowledge only investment bankers and Ben Bernanke have come up with numbers to match the distances. Does a trillion or two in debt make a few dozen light years more reasonable in our ability to understand the concept that a message to and from a distant star might take several thousand years to complete? I don't think so.
Anyway, if by some miracle we ever do get to meet an alien species, how would we hope to converse with them? Are there alien beings closer to hand with whom we could communicate? The answer is that researchers in several places in the world have been working to establish communication with dolphins - those beings who have proportionately large, sophisticated brains developed in areas linked to higher order thinking. Some studies even suggest dolphins share their own language. All are qualities we’d hope to see in an alien, and no daydream of contact is complete without imagining a conversation. Yet with dolphins, every attempt has involved teaching them to speak our language, rather than meeting in the middle.. until now:
CHAT — Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry — designed by behavioral biologist Denise Herzing's team at the Wild Dolphin Project in Florida is a device built to help humans communicate with dolphins directly. It’s a small unit worn around a diver’s neck, connected to a pair of hydrophones and a simple keyboard that can be used with one hand or a dolphin's nose. The idea is to sidestep the issue of whether dolphin ‘language’ can be translated by setting up the option of a common artificial language that both humans and dolphins could use. So far they've found that dolphins do some extremely interesting things from the standpoint of possible language. They can emit whistles and barks, use echo location, and seem to understand a basic syntax, which might indicate the difference between a statement and a question, or differentiate between a past or future tense. It would be amazing to hear how a dolphin sees the world.
Besides learning to use tools there is a very social nature to intelligence and to be social, we must be communicative. Learning about how other species on our own planet use their intelligence will eventually help us to learn more about the universe, whether we ever get to meet inhabitants from other stars or not. If the overall lesson for our lives is that we gain mutual respect for other beings on every level that would be good indeed. Looked at that way even Facebook means progress.
I like to think there are beings swimming in seas under alien suns who also wonder about the mysteries of creation. Goodness knows that's what I sometimes do when my wrist gets tired from drawing.