The ‘secret’ origins of the search for extra-terrestrial life

John Wenz has a fascinating account of a ‘secret’ meeting of scientists held in 1961 at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, which at that time was the biggest telescope available to radio astronomers. The reason it was kept hush-hush was not because they were doing anything nefarious but because these were people who were interested in seeking signs of extra-terrestrial life and that was considered somewhat fringey and they did not want to tarnish their reputations as serious scientists.

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 publicized 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 Pearman, the gathering included 10 scientists. Drake and Lilly were there, of course, as well as Drake’s inspiration Morrison. Also in attendance were radio expert Dana Atchley,pre-eminent biochemist Melvin Calvin, optical astronomer Su-Shu Huang (who first conceived of stars having “habitable zones”), computing pioneer Barney Oliver and Russian radio 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.

Another outcome of the meeting was the decision that since there are other highly intelligent species on Earth that are not humans, if we could learn to communicate with them, then we would be better equipped to communicate with extra-terrestrials and identify any signals that we receive from them. The leader in this effort was another attendee John Lilly.

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, Lilly thought, we might just have a shot at decoding other alien communication, too.

Lilly became another star of the show. Drake would write that, “Much of that first day, he regaled us with tales of his bottlenosed 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.”

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,” Drake wrote. “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.”

Their excitement may have been a little hasty. “In retrospect,” 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 humanlike.” He wasn’t alone.

“At that time we were quite enthusiastic about it because John Lilly came and told us about communications with dolphins,” Morrison told Swift. “Within a few years, the subject had pretty much dissipated, and Lilly’s work was not found to be reliable.”

But one thing that emerged was the realization was that to decode other forms of communication, you needed to listen in to conversations between two or more practitioners of it. Just hearing one side, such as just receiving signals, would likely not be enough.

There has been a recent resurgence of interest in searching for life elsewhere as we learn that there are a vast number of planets in habitable zones surrounding other stars. I myself think that it is very likely that intelligent life exists on other planets but also doubt that we will ever be able to communicate with them simply because of the vast distances involved and the limitations imposed by the speed of light.

But who knows?

It struck me that this combined interest in the existence of alien life plus communicating with dolphins that emerged from this 1961 meeting may have been the inspiration for Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the famous farewell by the dolphins, “So long, and thanks for all the fish”.


  1. Holms says

    I also expect life to exist elsewhere, but I don’t see why anybody would expect to see any emissions from any such civilisation, given the rapid attenuation of signal relative to the distances involved.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Reading Lilly’s dolphin books persuaded me that he hadn’t exercised his imagination enough to get past the human paradigm (though he did manage to escape the scientific paradigm).

    F’rinstance, he tried to get his dolphins to express different reactions to different objects placed in their tanks -- fair enough. But he used, iirc, circular and triangular metal plates -- the sort of differences that differ greatly to visually-oriented organisms like us, but which I suspect would seem secondary to the acoustically-oriented, who would perceive them as having the same metallic echo-effects much more than they would the distinctions in shape.

    … dolphins, whose brains, he said, were larger than ours and just as densely packed with neurons.

    Unless this has since been disproven (and why isn’t that a word?), the point remains valid for all cetaceans, thus -- to my mind -- demanding a new, less anthropocentric, definition of “intelligence” (and of “genocide”).

  3. sonofrojblake says

    It’s “So long, and thanks…”, not “Goodbye”. I know this seems like a small thing, but errors like this make my eyeballs itch.

  4. John Morales says

    Holms, sure. But, still worth a check. Empiricism.

    As to the post’s point, makes sense.

  5. Johnny Vector says

    This seems apropos:

    At the edge of the Galaxy, clusters of stars,
    Their members a billion years older than ours,
    Hold wobbles of planets around their pulsars.

    They’ve had eons more time than we.
    Is it possible, could it be?
    Am I watching you, watching me?

    And at the dawn of the twenty-first century
    The dream has become a reality.
    We’re not quite as alone as we used to be;
    There are planets around the stars.
    Dance of the Planets, Padi Boyd

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