NASA funded an attempt to communicate with aliens using a bizarre experiment which involved getting intimate and giving drugs to dolphins back in the 60s.
Malcolm Brenner made headlines in 2010 when he confessed to having had a passionate seven-month affair with a dolphin.
It wasn’t just sex, he insisted, the dolphin understood him. He felt that dolphins were no less intelligent than humans and that it was possible to find a shared language.
He’s not the first person to try to find a common language with the large-brained aquatic mammals.
American neuroscientist Dr John Lilly was fascinated by the responsive, playful animals and in 1961 published a bestselling book called Man and Dolphin that documented his attempts to teach English to a dolphin.
His intra-species communications experiments attracted the attention of Frank Drake, the American astronomer and astrophysicist, who dreamed up the famous equation estimating how many alien civilisations there were in our galaxy.
“I’d read his book and was very impressed,” said Drake, who is revered by UFO enthusiasts as the father of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).
“It was a very exciting book because it had these new ideas about creatures as intelligent and sophisticated as us, and yet living in a far different milieu.”
Drake saw Lilly as a like-minded individual who could help SETI build a toolkit for learning alien languages.
He said he and Lilly both “wanted to understand as much as we could about the challenges of communicating with other intelligent species”.
Drake’s endorsement saw Lilly secure financial backing for his work from NASA.
One day, perhaps 100 years from now, perhaps tomorrow, humans will meet intelligent aliens for the first time.
And when that happens, the first barrier we will have to overcome is finding a language that we can converse in.
Most languages that currently exist on Earth have at least a few things in common. The sounds we use, the idea of grammar. It can be difficult to learn a new language but it’s do-able. After all, we all have much the same bodies.
But aliens will absolutely not have the same bodies as us.
NASA saw Lilly as the key to making the linguistic leap to talking to an individual with totally different physiology.
But Lilly was a lot more than just a translator.
Lilly, along with his partner Margaret Howe Lovatt, used that NASA money to build a new lab where humans could share a space with dolphins.
Lovatt spent a great deal of time with a young male dolphin, named Peter, who seemed to take a great deal of interest in her.
She said: “He was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it.”
That charm eventually tipped over into physical intimacy and, according to a notorious profile published in Hustler magazine, Lovatt took to giving Peter sexual relief whenever he became too sexually aroused to participate in her experiments.
“It was just easier to incorporate that and let it happen,” she said.
“It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch, just get rid of that scratch and we would be done and move on.”
“it wasn’t sexual on my part,” she continued: “Sensuous perhaps.”
“It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.”
Meanwhile, Lilly experimentally dosed two other dolphins with LSD to see if the drug’s psychedelic effect would help them communicate. Lovatt prevented Lilly from giving acid to Peter.
But Frank Drake had sent Carl Sagan, a young astronomer who worked for him and would in time become internationally famous in his own right, to see how NASA’s money was being spent.
That was the beginning of the end for Lilly and Lovatt’s experiments. Not long after Sagan reported back to Frank Drake, NASA pulled the plug.
Soon after being separated from Lovatt, Peter drowned in an apparent suicide. Dolphins need to surface regularly to breathe and he appeared to deliberately stay submerged until he suffocated.
“He wasn’t going to be unhappy, he was just gone,” said Lovatt. “And that was OK.”
In the end, the first deliberate message to extraterrestrials resembled a basic video game more than a dolphin’s sonar clicks.
The Arecibo Message, as it was called, was designed by a team led by Drake and Sagan.
The three-minute message beamed towards the M13 star cluster in the constellation Hercules featured a number of spliced images of humans, a DNA strand, and a radio telescope.
It will take 25,000 years for the message to reach the stars, and at least another 25,000 years to get any reply. In fact, the core of M13 will no longer be in that location by the time the message arrives.
There was a hoax “reply” cut into a crop circle in Hampshire in 2001, but the real response (if there is one) should be received in just under 50,000 years.
Who knows what humans – or dolphins – will look like by then?