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14 March 2006 @ 03:56 pm
Communicating with Sound Sculptures  
Funny that Carl Sagan's _Contact_ came up in the Society recently. Reading the book and then seeing the movie some years later inspired me to imagine that orcas might be using a complex 4D sound-based communication system that 3D visually-oriented thinkers might be missing. Remember how they pull all kinds of data out of a pulse of prime numbers? It wouldn't surprise me if orcas use abstract reasoning founded on a sonar-based understanding of 3D objects moving in time.

I reasoned that the top of the food chain (in the sea, the orca reigns) would have had the most time to develop language and culture. (Claims made that the opposite is true, saying that fear and scarcity drive those things, refer to the prairie dog--sorry, but their time on earth is brief, and their culture and language are most likely very rudimentary.) Orcas live as long as we do, and they learn from their mother for long periods (males staying with them all their lives), so they have ample time to learn a nuanced language and absorb and promulgate a culture.

The anecdotal record certainly suggests orcas are worth talking to. Paul Spong, founder of Greenpeace, was once a marine biologist studying orcas. He was working with a captive female. She was undergoing a test to determine if she could visually discern distances of 1/16th of an inch. When she got an answer right, she would get a fish reward. She did the test for an hour, got bored, and then proceeded to get every answer wrong. Every answer. Statistically this is highly unlikely. She was telling Paul, go "Fish yourself." The way he tells it, he realized he was dealing with a highly intelligent being who didn't deserve to be a captive. He quit soon after. Another story has orcas responding to longline fishing bells in an interesting way. Before a ship hauls in its long-lines, full of fish, it rings the bell so hands won't get stuck in the machinery and can help, etc. The orcas thought this was their dinner bell. They'd show up and strip a ship's catch in record time. Neighboring ships, whining via radio, decided they'd collude. One ship would ring the bell and start and then stop, hoping the orcas were rushing there. Meanwhile the other boat would ring and roll it in, hoping the orcas were too far away. Well, it was a good plan. It worked for most of a long-line. The orca pod, no doubt breathless, showed up and ate the rest. The next time the boats tried this, the orca pod split in two and went after both boats' lines. Definitely smart.

But do they want to talk to us? One story from Paul Spong's recollections has it that they love music. A guy took a synthesizer with an underwater speaker out on the water and played them a simple chord. He said orcas surfaced around him and repeated it back in five part harmony. Sounds pretty drug-induced, doesn't it? But he played the chord back as they'd augmented it. They repeated it. They did this a few times and the orcas, bored, retreated. It was like a Hello! And probably the rest of an icebreaker, but we couldn't figure it out with just our puny hearing.

Putting myself in their fins, I imagined that if I were the top of the food chain endowed with a huge brain, living in the cold, loud, basically blind atmosphere of the ocean, I would want a complex sound-based communication system that would be as concise as possible. What I came up with was the idea of an orca pinging a sound wave off of something, say a shark jaw, the orca then sending part of that sound sculpture, a minimist kanji-type sound sculpture, to the rest of his pod, and that being a successful shorthand communication. Different kanji sets could account for the different dialects Ford et al study now.

It would be really interesting to take one of those hyper realistic sculpture machines you sit in, where the laser circles you and it sends the wavelength information to the mold, and transpose the wavelength info into sound, and see if an orca would respond to the 3D image. It would be a start of a new way to communicate with them.

Thoughts?
 
 
 
Yes, Jack Shoegazer!: Earth Hat Bodyjackshoegazer on March 14th, 2006 06:43 pm (UTC)
That's a terrific idea. I don't know enough about orcas to offer any sort of rebuttal, but the idea is lovely. If it's true, great, if not, then it makes for good sci-fi :)
irishspongieirishspongie on March 15th, 2006 12:28 am (UTC)
I know a little about dolphins, who are definitely up there in the intelligence stakes, but nothing about orcas. Interesting stuff :)
Jacquelyn: When I grow up...antarcticlust on March 19th, 2006 08:59 pm (UTC)
There has been some work done on object recognition with dolphins, and I wonder if it would make a difference if the objects were 2 vs. 3-dimensional? It would make sense that, living in a much more 3-d world than we do, that the water mammals would have developed different refernces in their communication.
jenmaryajenmarya on March 19th, 2006 11:01 pm (UTC)
If their sonar is like sound "hands" they reach out and touch things with in pitch-black water, then just as a blind person gets almost negligible information with a 2-d image, 3-d sonar capturing has to be a crucial part of their sense repertoire. Wouldn't surprise me if 4-d sonar capturing and communicating is, too-- even something as simple as being able to indicate simultaneously with the sound sculpture of the shark jaw whether the shark is approaching or passing.

Although they are easier to work with, dolphins just don't impress me as being as smart as orcas (admittedly, I have no basis for thinking that), particularly transient orcas, so I tend to think of the research done on dolphins as sort of a distraction; seems we've spent a lot of time researching the intelligence of and communication with the neighbor's dogs rather than the neighbors, and concluded that the neighbors were all safely dumb in both ways...