The Fascinating Science of Dolphins, Whales, and Our Pale Blue Dot’s Most Alien Communication Language – The Marginalian

In her rare story of the magic of true communication, Ursula K. Logan wrote: “Words are events, do things, and change things…they feed back and forth energy and amplify it.” “They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”

For thousands of years, we have considered language – the magical box of words – the hallmark of our species. Only in a final flash of evolutionary time have we begun to move beyond our self-referential nature and consider the possibility that other types of channels carry magical energy to creatures that tell each other what it means to be alive, here and now from a common reality.

From the first moment we looked up at the night sky and declared the scattering of stars to be the totality of the universe, and placed ourselves at its center, time and time again we erred in the limits of our awareness of the limits of everything there is; Time and time again, our moral limitations have limited our understanding of reality.

So the unusual underwater language has remained undiscovered by humans for the vast majority of the history of our species and the history of our sciences.

art of year of the whale, 1949.

In his absolutely wonderful book Depth: Freedom, Rebellious Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (a public library), James Nestor wrote:

In a world of seven billion people, where every inch of land has been mapped, so much developed, and so much destroyed, the sea is still the last wilderness unseen, untouched, undiscovered, and the last great frontier of the planet …a really quiet place on earth.

However, it will only be truly calm if we limit the truth to our human perceptions. In the indigo waters, in what Els Postelman called the “fantasy land of the submarine” as it brought the undersea world to the human eye for the first time, silent symphonies of speech for us were bellowing across vast distances, carrying urgent and sensitive messages like danger and identity. Now, after a century of science and compassionate curiosity, we know that mothers of dolphins will repeatedly whistle a crackling sound for a newborn—a kind of christening, the baby imprints with his given name.

art of Giant fish field book, 1949. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Dolphins and whales – aquatic mammals known collectively as cetaceans – have some of the largest and most complex brains on our pale blue dot. A century after the great nature writer Henry Beston called us to rise to a different, wiser conception of animals, because they move in this world “gifted with extensions of senses we have lost or never fulfilled, and live with sounds we will never hear,” we know that the cortex of dolphins— The part of the brain tasked with problem-solving and high-level thinking—relatively larger than our cortex, and that dolphins communicate in a strange, wondrous language we’re only just beginning to decipher. Nestor details his fascination with dazzling creature mechanics:

Dolphins do not have vocal cords or larynxes, so they cannot vocalize in a way that sounds like human speech. Instead, they use two small, mouth-like structures built into their heads – the remains of what were once gills. A dolphin can flex and flex these nasal passages, called vocal lips, to create a variety of sounds — whistles, choppy pulsations, clicks, and more — at frequencies between 75 and 150,000 hertz.

Of these, we can only hear the smallest part at the lowest register – while humans can produce sounds up to 20,000 Hz, our daily speech falls in the paltry 85-300 Hz range. But one of the most extraordinary things about our species is our stubborn and inspiring refusal to allow our moral endowments to constrain our imagination and our hunger for truth. “We have a hunger for the mind that demands to know everything around us,” noted pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, when a new generation of powerful telescopes began revealing cosmic truths far beyond what our naked eyes can see, “and the more we earn, the more we desire.”

Spectra from different light sources from a nineteenth century French physics textbook. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

It was an instrument of its age, invented for its field—the spectrometer, first used to analyze the light of Vega, the star that a quarter of a thousand years ago had established one of Galileo’s most inventive experiments to disprove the geocentric model of the universe—that scientists applied to sound a century after Time to discover and decipher the language of underwater mammals. Recording the high-frequency clicks and whistles of dolphins, inaudible to human ears, and playing the recordings back through a spectrogram, humans were able to perform a feat of mechanical synesthesia and see for the first time the sound of silence rich in language – the sound of waves that sounded, in the beautiful poetic Nestor image, like “Primitive form of hieroglyphs.”

This acoustic marvel is part and parcel of the same evolutionary inheritance that gave cetaceans an amazing input channel to us as the product of ultrasonic hieroglyphs: their echolocation ability, granted by jaws that act as high-resolution sound waves.

Nestor considers how strange this form of listening to us is and what leaps in scientific prowess it takes for us to create a mechanical prosthesis that extends our creativity to the Bestonian levels of the superhuman senses:

Sound does not travel in a straight line, as it appears on a spectrogram, but expands in three dimensions, like fog. The ears process sound from only two channels; Cetaceans have the equivalent of thousands of channels that can collect this fog from all directions… It is not easy for humans to perceive ultrasound images through echolocation. Scientists would need to build an artificial jaw filled with thousands of tiny microphones to mimic the tiny receptors, and then build a computer capable of processing all the data collected.

Globicephalus melas, or the long-finned pilot whale – a large species of oceanic dolphin – from book of whales By Frank Evers Bedard, 1900. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

What is for us no less than a miracle, requiring an epic triumph of technology, is that cetaceans are nothing more than a common occurrence for survival amidst a very black world. Nestor describes the remarkable difference in physiology that makes these sea floor mammals relatives and aliens:

When whales send a click (their version of the sonar test), they receive echo information with a sac of fat located under the lower jaw. Unlike the ears, which provide only two guiding sources for gathering information, this sac of fat provides cetaceans with thousands of data points. An animal can manipulate these objects to measure the distance, shape, depth, inside and outside of things and creatures around it.

Dolphins can detect the shape, position and size of larger objects from up to six miles away. Echolocation is so powerful and sensitive that it can penetrate a foot deep into the sand; He can even “see” under the skin. Dolphins can look at the lungs, stomachs, and brains of the animals around them. With all this information, scientists believe dolphins can create the equivalent of an HD-quality display of nearby objects — not just where those objects are, but how they look from the inside out. Basically, dolphins and other cetaceans have X-ray vision.

art of year of the whale, 1949.

A continuation with the wondrous world of octopus awareness and the science of how trees communicate, until we and our scientific tools modernize the science of communicating with whales, then reconsider year of the whale – The 1969 poetic book about the mysterious life of the largest creatures on our planet – and artist Jenny Desmond sings the subtle sciences of the blue whale.

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