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April 21, 2005

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April 22

Whales in Space


April 22, 2005 | Updated 5:45 p.m. ET

Whales in space: In the movie "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," a super-powerful alien probe is poised to destroy Earth unless it hears from a particular breed of intelligent creatures. Unfortunately, the creatures that the aliens have in mind are not humans, but humpback whales, which were supposedly driven to extinction long before the 23rd century. Naturally, the only solution was sending the Enterprise's crew back in time.

On Friday, the Hawaii-based Sirius Institute and the Florida-based Deep Space Communications Network marked Earth Day 2005 by giving the humpbacks their own broadcast to the stars, if only for five minutes. Maybe that'll save Kirk and Spock the trip.

As we reported weeks ago, Deep Space is the outfit that uses a 16-foot-wide (5-meter-wide) TV transmission antenna to beam radio messages spaceward for a fee. The Sirius Institute, meanwhile, is a group of researchers who are studying whales and dolphins in hopes of setting up communication links between the cetaceans and us humans.

"We feel that it is important to invite the Cetacea, the oldest sentient race on the planet, to our Earth Day celebration and share their songs with the universe," Michael Hyson, the institute's research director, said in a news release.

Hyson told me that the institute's founding partner, Paradise Newland, came up with the idea of broadcasting whale songs to the stars years ago.

"It's something along the lines of 'Star Trek IV,'" he said. "We thought we'd do it early, before the whales left."

The institute paid the standard $99 rate for the five-minute live transmission, which took place shortly after 4 p.m. ET today, said Deep Space's director, Jim Lewis. An underwater microphone in the waters off Maui picked up the tweets of the humpbacks, and the Whalesong Project streamed them over the Internet. Deep Space then relayed the signals toward the star Sirius.

Whale songs weren't the only music transmitted on Friday. After the Sirius Institute's message was transmitted, Deep Space aired the debut of an entire album, "Sentimental Junk," recorded by the pop group Black Eyed Soul, Lewis said. Yet another transmission, commissioned by the Orange County Register, beamed out short messages from the newspaper's readers.

You can see and hear what Deep Space transmitted by logging onto the company's online archive (free registration required).

It's highly debatable whether any aliens could hear the songs, even assuming that aliens actually exist. Researchers specializing in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, say signals of the kind sent out by Deep Space would fade out just a couple of light-years away from Earth, but Lewis said civilizations more advanced than ours still might be able to make out even an ultra-faint signal. (For what it's worth, Sirius the star is 8.7 light-years away.)

Aliens may well hear from the humpbacks by another means: Whale songs were included on the "Golden Record" that was carried aboard each of the two Voyager deep-space probes launched in 1977.

For Hyson, it's the thought that counts. "We consider this event to be sponsored by what we call the Cetacean Commonwealth, the whales along with the people who support them in an attempt to give them legal status and a voice," he said.

The Sirius Institute has been working on several projects to bring humans and cetaceans closer together, including plans for dolphin-attended underwater births, interspecies concerts and experiments aimed at translating the pitch-based dolphin language into human phonemes.

"It's rumored that the Navy has interfaces similar to this going already," Hyson said.

If such experiments are successful, Sirius' ultimate aim is to extend the same type of protections to whales and dolphins that humans now enjoy. It's an intriguing thought that has been debated for decades, if not centuries: Do we already share the planet with alien intelligences? Or are the thought processes of cetaceans, chimpanzees and cephalopods too alien to be considered on a par with human intelligence?

The idea reminds me of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous pronouncement: "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him."

If this is a tangent you wouldn't mind going off on, check out this section from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Wittgenstein and this New York Times excerpt from the book "If a Lion Could Talk," as well as this Satya review of the book. Then let me know what you think about the prospects for communicating with aliens on planet Earth.

Correction from 10:35 p.m. ET April 21: A Cosmic Log correspondent points out that in "Star Trek IV," the Enterprise itself did not go back in time. "The crew actually used an old Klingon bird of prey that they had hijacked in the third movie in the series," Ed writes.

April 21, 2005 | 8:45 p.m. ET



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