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.


jams o donnell said...

I love the picture Susan, It was a great story that accompanied it in Adventures.

I have been fascinated with space since the Apollo missions when I was a child (One of the highlights of my life was to meet Neil Armstrong!). While the manned exploration of teh solar system never materialised the missions that we have had are amazing. I will not be surprised if extra terrestrial life is discovered in our solar sustem, maybe on Europa

As for ETI, I doubt we will encounter any for a long time... unless we break the light barrier!

gfid said...

i heard a CBC radio program some years ago about the language of killer whales. the conclusion of a particular group of researchers working with different pods off the west coast of canada was that, not only do killer whales have language, they also have dialects. an infant, somehow separated from its family pod, and encountering an unfamiliar pod, was not able to communicate with members of the new pod until they learned from each other. another scientist has experimented with communicating with other (i think perhaps sperm?) whales by way of musical sounds. he learned that certain 'melodies' appear to have specific meaning, as they are encountered with some regularity. the whales he studied also attempted to replicate musical sounds he broadcast underwater, apparently attempting to communicate with whoever was sending the sounds. the musical sounds did, however, have to be very slow (no joke).

the cynic in me wonders why we should want to try communicating with another species or life form, when our skills in that area with our own species are so sketchy. present company excluded, of course.

linda said...

this painting is so precious...the horse looks like the palomino we had....she was named meg and had sibs named pepper, ginger, etc. she was the best tho....she(the little girl) has a certain "look" in her eye and i am wondering what she's [*you*] thinking!! ;)

i am afraid were we to find life in space, we would also immediately decide we needed to extinguish it as well...sadly enough....imagine if we could only communicate with each other--present company excepted of course!

it would be fascinating to know what dolphins think and perhaps even whales....can you imagine that whales talk from one end of the oceans to the other and recognize each other? i cannot believe this but read they can talk to each other from the pacific to the atlantic and hear each they know that, i have no idea!


Vincent said...

I haven't read your words yet, but your child pictures remind me uncannily of those by Cat Stevens for a couple of album covers, as you can see on this web page.

Do you see what I mean?

okjimm said...

To really meet some Alien Species... just check out some bars in Northern Wisconsin during hunting season. Just sayin'

Ol'Buzzard said...

Susan; I love this post - we have kindred interest...
When we apply Chaos Theroy to evolution there is no reason to believe that if the evolutionary process on earth started anew, from the beginning, that we would have the same outcome. There are too many variables that have led to life on earth as we know it. It is a crap shoot - so there is no reason to believe we will find identical life on other planets - life yes; but what results from their evolutionary process will be completely different. We are such an egocentric animal that we have to believe that any valuable species will be like us - the odds would be astounding.
There is,however, some value to our species as evidence by your paintings.
the Ol'Buzzard

Randal Graves said...

I can't wait until we do make contact, step one on the path to stealing all their resources (what else are we good at?)

Klaatu barada nikto.

susan said...

jams - I'd be pretty excited about having met Neil Armstrong too. Although the manned space programs tapered off sharply the robots sent to Mars have provided some very exciting results. My guess is the same as yours regarding the possibility of life in the ocean of Europa. I think people will return to space in the long run but the habitats are going to look more like those in the movie 'Outland' than the Starship Enterprise. Causality is a huge barrier to FTL.

gfid - Scientists have determined that young cetaceans appear to have a similar language learning curve to human infants in that they babble on the way to learning more complex speech patterns. I've heard the music of sperm whales and it's most definitely an acquired taste - and slow. It's fascinating someone tried playing our music to them and that they responded. We're such a speedy species it's very hard to imagine how such enormous and long-lived creatures view their world.

I've got a big chunk of cynicism too but I try (and it's not always easy) to remember there are many levels of intelligence in our own species. I do think there's a maturing process going on that's being blocked by short-sighted greed in a segment of our population. There's no way of knowing how things will go in the long run, is there?

linda - I'm glad you like the picture now that it's done. Horses and people seem to have an intrinsically beautiful connection.

Humanity in the aggregate does have a terrible record when it comes to meeting other members of our species who are at a technologically lower level. We may have even done in the Neanderthals by sheer force of numbers. It appears we have a long way to go just in learning to talk to each other.

I con only imagine dolphins and whales see the world very differently from us. One interesting thing I read about the young female dolphins Denise Herzing has been working with is that they greet each other and people by swimming close while looking in one anothers' eyes. Long distance communication in large whales is all about deep sonar impulses. Amazing stuff.

vincent - I did go to check out Cat Steven's pictures and you're right about the similarity. That was really nice to see.

okjimm - I don't have to go that far as there are more than a few around here too.

ol'buzzard - It was definitely a very tricky process that happened on earth that allowed modern humans the space to develop. You'd never think a huge asteroid hitting the earth would be beneficial and as far as the dinosaurs were concerned, it wasn't. Nevertheless, it still took millions of years for us to evolve and any number of circumstances could have been the end of us. There's even some strong evidence that 70k years ago the entire human population was reduced to about 15k individuals after the Toba volcano erupted and changed the world's climate. That we're here at all is either a miracle or a weird coincidence depending on your point of view. I find this stuff fascinating and I'm glad you do as well.

randal - We also appear to be good at giving them diseases and killing them outright. It's actually a very good thing we're so far away from anywhere else.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Lovely picture. What a marvelous gift we have been given to be able to appreciate the majesty of the universe!!
Given the extreme distances I don’t think in our lifetime or in future generations there is any chance of ever communicating with other life – but is fascinating to think about it.

I also think there are many more mysterious facets of life to be discovered in the oceans and to better understand their inhabitants including the mercurial dolphins who as you say are so intelligent.

Anonymous said...

If I were a dolphin, my first communication to humans would be this question: What is the matter with your species?

Actually, it would probably be more like: What the frack is wrong with you idiots? Why are you stinking up the planet with your crap and why, for Neptune's sake, can't you get along with one another?

So its probably a good thing I'm not a dolphin, because this communication thing is a really cool idea. Obviously, if I were a dolphin, the other dolphins wouldn't want me as their ambassador ... too testy.

Good piece, thought provoking as usual. I like the illustration a great deal.

susan said...

lindsay - I'm happy you like the picture. Yes, it's true we've been given a wonderful gift and I honestly believe there are more than enough species right here for us to learn to treat with respect. Most people have no idea just how big our solar system is - never mind beyond.

noodleepoodlee - I couldn't agree with you more about what to say as a representative of the dolphins. Not only do they and all the others have to put up with the poisons and physical crap but also the noise pollution of their environment. They seem by their behavior to be remarkably forgiving.

Lisa said...

You continue to take me to places I hadn't even considered. Thank you for that.

P.S. The painting is wonderful

marja-leena said...

Lovely painting, Susan.

When I think of space and the solar system, I find myself quite frightened by all that unknown expanse. What is the opposite of claustrophobia? I felt that in watching "2001: A Space Odyssey" and still shiver when I think of being lost in space forever, like the worst nightmare. Me, I'm keeping my feet on this earth, whatever may happen. If there is life out there, they can come say hello to me right here :-)

susan said...

lisa - I just like to think about weird stuff but it's so nice you do too.

I'm glad you like the picture as well - these days my hand (or lower back) really do get tired.

marja-leena - Thank you again.

Agoraphobia is the opposite but pertains more to crowds. Astrophobia sounds about right and I understand the feeling because the idea of just how big and empty space really is frightens me as well. I love looking at mountains but get vertigo watching film about mountain climbers. Yes, the aliens will have to introduce themselves to me too.

Steve Emery said...

I especially like the feeling that the horse and girl are on top of a floating tiny meadow, reminding me of the tiny planets in The Little Prince. And I fancy I'm seeing an echo in the tree.

But my favorite thing about this illustration remains the way she seems WAY up there in that saddle - and yet fearless. Bored, maybe, but no worries.

susan said...

steve - I decided on the floating tiny meadow thing while I was in the midst of painting it all rather than before. To tell you the truth I wished I'd planned the way it looks a bit better but I'm glad you saw it and got the idea.

Lydia said...

Goodness knows, your thinking is profound, your expression astute, your drawing sublime. This is so worthy of major publication!

Vincent said...

I'm not sure that interspecies communication can take place, in the sense of what we normally call communication. For behind language there is a system of concepts. Concepts are based on needs, which tend to be highly specific.

Aside from domestication, where dogs and their owners have evolved certain mutual interests, I can think of one kind of instance which you might want to call interspecies communication, or a common language.

Many species of bird have a characteristic alarm call which they use to warn their fellows of an approaching predator. Other species--birds, apes etc--take advantage of these alarm calls if they are equally at risk, and make their escape accordingly.

I wouldn't expect interspecies communication to go much further than that.

gfid said...

i didn't even mention the painting in my earlier ramble.... child and horse appear to be quite comfortable with each other. this says a great deal aobut both of them. this picture is an embodiment of serenity, trust and companionship. i can almost feel the sun on my bare arms, smell the horse, hear the jangle of the metal on the harness and bit, and the tear and chew of the horse's teeth on grass. all very satisfying sensations.

susan said...

lydia - You're far too kind but thank you just the same.

vincent - Although it's fun to imagine a conversation with another species, particularly a technologically superior alien species, the barriers to mutual understanding would be formidable to the point of impossibility. Humans have strong tendencies to anthropomorphize interactions with everything from animals to favorite appliances but actually having any of them talk back would be a profound shock. We also don't have what could be called a general tendency toward altruism when it comes to dealing with one another. Until we can manage that there's not much sense in imagining the other thing.

gfid - I'm glad you liked the painting enough to come back and say so. I've been having a hard time lately drawing anything.

Gina said...

What a wonderful and creative mind you have!

In the presence of an alien, I think I would merely be tongue-tied. Not only because it would be amazing to meet up with one (or more) but also because as a human on Earth, I would worry that said alien might already know far too much about what idiots Earthlings are and opening my mouth to say anything at all, might confirm an alien's suspicions.

Vincent said...

In Becoming Animal, by David Abram, there is a whole chapter on "The Discourse of the Birds", from which I quote:

"...I've begun to tune my ears to the discourse of local birds. Jon pointed out to me that there are five basic phrases in the vocabulary of most perching birds--a simplification, perhaps, but one which has enabled my listening to gain a first access to the language of the winged folk."

Then he goes into details!

susan said...

gina - You have no less of a wonderful and creative mind than me; we simply have different interests and, happily, many things in common.

It's interesting to think we have two distinct ways of thinking about any star faring alien race we might meet. The first is that they'd be monsters who would wipe us out, the second is that they'd be god-like and wise parental figures. I'm also reluctant to find out which.

vincent - There are many times when it's really quite simple to figure out what they're saying. To us it's, 'Did you bring food and if you didn't why are you here?' To other birds it's, 'Stay away from my food or I'll rip your beak off.' It's unlikely many of them participate in complex philosophical discussions but it would be interesting to find out.