If humans were sea creatures, dolphins, not dogs, would probably be man’s best friend. They are widely recognized as one of the most intelligent species on earth. They are playful, show signs of altruism to their own species and to others, and have even been known to use tools. They have fascinated biologists for years, but now they’ve caught the attention of an astrophysicist who believes they may be the key to a challenging puzzle in the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life.
As someone who is very interested in languages and linguistics, I have always wondered how we would cross that vast divide between human and alien. Alien life is likely to have little common ground with humans upon which to build a mutual understanding. On Earth, an obscure tribe with an unknown language has at least some tools with which to communicate with newcomers. There are hand gestures, shared areas of knowledge, and – most importantly – facial expressions, the ultimate universal language. Within the same species, there will always be commonalities – keys to communication built into our DNA.
But how could we possibly communicate with aliens – beings that might bear no passing resemblance to us, who may or may not have a gesturing ability that we would recognize, and whose appearance may be so foreign as to be indecipherable? Without common ground, how will we know if they are intelligent or even have a language to decode?
A recent episode of “Through The Wormhole” (aired March 6, 2012) has a segment that addresses this very subject. The episode, titled “Will We Survive First Contact?” consults Dr. Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute, which is at the forefront of the search for life beyond our home planet. Dr. Doyle has been studying animal communication to try to crack this dialogue dilemma.
Doyle has found a new application for a science called Information Theory, which can be used to analyze any collection of sounds to determine if those sounds convey information. When you analyze a series of randomized words by plotting each word against the number of times used, you end up with a horizontal line. This means that the words all occur with the same prevalence. In a series of words that are arranged to convey information – from flowery poetry to a dry textbook – the words will occur with different frequencies. Some words, like “the,” “and,” “as,” and so on, are more common than other words. When you plot them on a graph, you get a line that slopes at 45 degrees.
What is exciting about this is what they found when they applied this theory to dolphin chatter. We have no point of reference from which to interpret the sounds dolphins make. There has been much speculation about the intelligence of dolphins and the sophistication of their communication. They are, in many ways, alien. But Doyle plotted the frequency of the various sounds in dolphin chatter and found that he got a line that sloped at 45 degrees. This implies that dolphins communicate through their sounds in a way that approximates human language. Some sounds are more frequent than others, and they are combined to create a complete phrase.
We haven’t been able to translate the language of dolphins from this finding, but it’s a starting point. It tells us that they do transmit information through the sounds they make, and it even tells us which “words” in their language are the most common. If we were to encounter an alien life form, we would know how to determine if their communication is sophisticated enough to be a language. And perhaps as we continue to study the language of dolphins, we will continue to learn how to decipher a dialect that is entirely foreign to us.
Whether you believe in extraterrestrial intelligent beings or think we are alone on our oasis of life, tools like information theory are helping us decipher the universe. Even if we never encounter E.T., we’ve only just discovered an alien language spoken by beings that inhabit our own world. Oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle said that “we know more about other parts of the solar system than we do our own ocean.” This goes to show that our universe – even the parts of it that we believe ourselves to know intimately – still has a wealth of secrets for us to explore.