Space Time

Meet the Alien Whisperer

How an astrophysicist uses dolphin and whale communication to prepare for possible alien contact

Shannon Stirone
Published in
4 min readJan 23, 2019


Photo: by wildestanimal/Getty Images

WWhen astrophysicist Laurance Doyle was six, his father presented him with a map of the solar system and said, “The stars are other people’s suns.” The line sparked Doyle’s interest in space, and he’s been studying outer worlds ever since.

In the past, Doyle has worked on discovering exoplanets with NASA’s Kepler mission. Today, he’s leading a project that could be equally groundbreaking: building a framework for understanding alien languages.

Since 1987, Doyle has worked at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, where he is a principal investigator on an assignment to imagine how another intelligent civilization might communicate. Of course, there are no known alien languages available to study today — if they even exist in the first place — so Doyle is using intelligent animal languages as a guidepost.

To do this, Doyle and his colleagues have collected a range of sounds made by dolphins and humpback whales. They currently have 180,000 dolphin whistles that they use to analyze the sea creatures’ syntax, the same way a linguist would for human sounds.

Unlike other intelligent animals, like monkeys, Doyle says, “humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins depend upon signals that are acoustic,” whereas other creatures can also rely on body language cues. “Therefore, we can obtain and classify the different units of their signaling systems and [be] sure that we’re getting all of them, because humpback whales generally don’t gesture or smile.”

Humpback whales happen to be one of the most socially complex animals on earth. “[They] form long-lasting relationships based on profession, just like humans,” Doyle says. “They’re the only other species known to do that.”

To break the code of aquatic animal communication, Doyle and his team use what are called intelligence filters, which help measure a language’s complexity. The filter they rely on most often is called Zipf’s law.

Doyle says the complexities of long-distance communication in the ocean also…