Laurance Doyle

Astronomer with the SETI Institute and President, PlanetQuest

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Creation, Scientist

Laurance Doyle is an Astronomer with the SETI Institute and President of PlanetQuest. During our interview, he talked about his role in searching for ET life by looking for habitable planets, enabling children to discover planets, and making discoveries regarding animal languages and communication skills. He also shared how a spiritual concept of unlimited creation helps with problem-solving, why he thinks religion and science aren't necessarily contradictory, how he approaches science as an artist who relies on God, and how intuition and inspiration apply to careers.

How did you get into astronomy?
When I was 6, my dad gave me a map of the solar system, and I learned that the sun was just a really close star. Then, I thought that there must be people living around the stars farther away. I wondered how many of those people spoke Spanish, which, growing up in California, was my nearest 6-year-old concept of another culture. I never thought of specializing in astronomy, but of learning about the folks who live among the stars. So, I ended up at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute.

Why are you so sure there's ET life?
There was a minister who asked me, "Do you think that God is Life?" I said, "Yes!" The minister said, "Don't you think He'd make most of what He is?" So, is life complex matter, or is life a law of the universe? Math certainly isn't "in" the chalk. The idea of laws of life has emerged at NASA's new Astrobiology Institute. And the astrobiology science community is finding that life is more widespread than anyone imagined. The universe isn't just a bunch of dead matter. This thought has given an impetus to SETI, as well. "Everything that has happened on Earth could happen out there!" is much more the feeling than it was even a couple of decades ago. Also, there's always the old argument that that's a lot of space to waste if we are the only people in the universe. We shouldn't limit God's creation when there are more stars -- that is, suns -- than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. It's just not likely that in the entire universe, Earth is the only one where God has expressed life. Astronomers are convinced by the sheer statistics. Even the Psalmist says, "He [God] telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names. Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite" (147:4, 5). The Psalmist was making the same argument about infinity that astronomers make today. The author of Job must have been inspired when he wrote about God, "Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south" (9:9), and asked, "Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?" (38:32). What they were saying was huge! The more we study the 400 billion other stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and the trillions of other galaxies, the more we begin to find examples of stars that are familiar to ours. The NASA Kepler Mission finds Earth-size planets, so we'll know within a decade if there are other "Earths." I bet there will be plenty of planets discovered within the next decade with stars like the sun, and "critters" (non-humans) discovered in the following decade, and eventually perhaps even "folks" (technological civilizations).

What projects are you doing at SETI right now?
I have two primary projects, and I'm starting a third. One is to detect other Earth-like planets around other stars. There are lots of people finding giant planets, but I'm more interested in galactic ecology -- finding planets the right size; defining habitable zones; and answering the question, "What planetary conditions are required for life?" Jupiter, for instance, is a large planet; it's all gas, doesn't have a surface, and therefore, can't have critters. The moon is too little to hold atmosphere. Planets which have just the right size to hold an atmosphere and a solid surface, like Mars, Venus, and Earth, still may not have the right conditions for life, though. We can look at these three planets as "The Three Bears," with one "just right." Mars lost its green house atmosphere. One theory about why is that its surface cooled too quickly, leaving exposed Iron rocks which absorbed all the Oxygen (O2). Plus, there's no volcanic activity, which releases O2 and other gasses back into the atmosphere. Venus, on the other hand, has too much volcanic activity, which releases Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into its atmosphere, creating a super green house effect and 900 degree surface temperature -- much too hot for biology to develop. Earth, though, recycles its atmosphere through plate tectonics. Earth has just the right balance of volcanic and atmospheric recycling to permit life to develop and thrive on its surface. (Several projects are about habitable zones: Circumstellar Habitable Zones in Our Solar System, Circumstellar Habitable Zones IV: What Makes a Friendly Neighborhood?, Circumstellar Habitable Zones V: Planning Far Ahead) The next project is an educational component -- to share detection of planets through PlanetQuest.

How does PlanetQuest work?
It's a program designed to inspire children to discover their own planets and worlds, which is a lot more exciting for us. We (scientists) take pictures of hundreds of thousands of stars. We're looking for planets as they move across the disc of the star causing a blink in the starlight. It takes a long time for our computers to test all that data, so we've written software that works with the data we've downloaded from the observatories. We provide that software for others. It uses the spare time in the kids' computers to search through our pictures, use our algorithms, etc. The software enables children to make genuine, real discoveries, which is a lot of fun. (Learn more about PlanetQuest.)

That's a fantastic idea!
What's the third aspect of your work? Animal communications is the other component. The basic laws of information theory were discovered in the early '50s by Claude Shannon at Bell Labs for the purpose of figuring out how much information (data) was being sent through phone lines (and applies to any given channel, such as wireless and satellite communications). I had an idea a number of years ago to apply it to animals when I was visiting my friends, Brenda McCowan, a UC Davis professor, and Sean Hanser, who is getting his PhD. We first applied it to dolphins to see how much dolphins are whistling back and forth, and now we are working with humpback whales, one of the more difficult animals to study.

What have you discovered about dolphins?
There's a linguistic rule called Zipf's Law which enables us to identify if something is a language based on the distribution of the frequency of occurrences of different sounds, letters, or words. In the English language, a "space" is the most frequent character, then the letter "e," then "t," then "a," then all the way to the "q," which is the least frequent character. If it's a language -- any language -- the plot will show a 45° slope. So, we recorded dolphins and found out that the dolphin whistle vocalizations are consistent with the linguistic distribution of humans. We're not getting at meaning yet, but the consistency of the sounds proves that dolphins communicate through language. We also found that baby dolphins verbalize in the same way as human babies. Baby babbling starts out near a horizontal line. As babies start getting language specific, they drop hundreds of sounds and start repeating certain sounds over and over again. "Mama" sounds occur more than any other sounds in English at this point. This makes their plot move from a horizontal, past the 45°, closer to a vertical line. As they become adults, their sounds plot at 45 degrees. We found that dolphins produce the same evolution of their whistle communications systems (although faster because dolphins mature at about 12 months): baby dolphins babble; adolescent dolphins then start repeating the same whistles over and over more often; and adult dolphins produce frequencies of occurrence of whistles that match Zipf's Law. Information theory also applies: when dolphins are young, they don't transmit whistles in a complex fashion as the adult dolphins do; they use a lot of repetition too. But the more adult they become, the more information complexity is transmitted: they have more syntactical structure and are not using just a single whistle so much. So we ask ourselves why they have developed a "language." One probable answer is for survival. So far, we haven't been able to measure how complex their whistle communications can get. But there are people from the Canary Islands -- on Gomera Island -- who have a well developed whistle language, over 2000 years old, used to send messages over deep valleys. So now, we can compare human whistles to dolphin whistles. We've also worked with ground squirrels, squirrel monkeys, and want to work with elephants soon. (Read more about Doyle's work with Zipf's Law. )

How does your work with animal language help you with SETI?
If we get signals from space, we can, from learning more general rules of communication, measure the degree of complexity of another species' signaling system. From all the studies we have to date, even extraterrestrial communication systems must obey the laws of information theory to transmit information.

How does the work with humpback whales apply?
Other than humans, humpback whales are the only animals (that we know of so far) that form long-lasting bonds based on what might be called a "profession," the bubble netting groups. Humpback whales make bubble nets to catch herring. Some of the whales construct the net, while others chase the herring into it; then, all come under it and make sounds as they rise, trapping the herring and making them rise to the surface and fly out of the ocean so the whales can engulf them with their big open mouths. The Alaska Whale Foundation measured the DNA of the whales involved in bubble netting and discovered that these fishing groups do not generally consist of one family or even relatives. Rather, individual humpback whales are chosen by the fishing group for their skill at bubble netting. Studying them is very interesting in that we see what structure their communication takes when they are constructing these bubble nets.

God's creatures certainly are amazing! As a scientist, how do you view the Bible?
The Bible to me is a book of reality. I take the Bible historically and seriously, but mostly spiritually. Jesus' parables are spiritual metaphors. Psalm 18, for example, says, "The Lord is my rock" (2) and "who is a rock save our God" (31). If we look at this literally, we miss the point. It's all about spiritual lessons. The individuals in the Bible who trusted in God generally understood spiritual reality better than the average person, I would have to say. When they saw the source of the universe as God, Mind, harmony resulted, and there was less limitation. They were able to do things that a limited perspective would call miracles. For instance, Daniel got along with the lions; Jesus fed the multitudes, healed the man with the withered hand, and more. So if I take the Bible historically, then, as a scientist, I can't say there was a momentary setting aside of the nature of the universe. I don't believe in miracles, actually. There has to be a law that allowed Jesus and the others to do these things, a law which requires a deeper understanding of reality. Jesus came to reveal reality so we would understand it in a deeper light, not to set reality aside to impress us in a certain religious matter. The Bible is about the sacredness of creation. It shows how the spiritual view of things works and how the selfish, materialistic, limited view of things doesn't work. Anyone who really tries to understand creation can find that the spiritual concept of creation says that, in truth, there aren't really any limits. Rather, there are unlimited discoveries to be made. And quantum physicists are making discoveries (that are largely unknown today, as yet) about the continuing nature of creation, which is not subject to time. But that's another topic in itself; quantum physicists call this "the participatory universe."

Can you explain further how you arrive at a spiritual concept of creation?
If people truly read the story of creation presented in the first chapter of Genesis and the story of creation that the Psalmist sang about and the one written in Job, they'll find the spiritual concept of creation. If people get stuck in and accept too literal an interpretation translation, I think its spiritual lessons could be missed. Jacob read his brother's face and told Esau: "I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God" (Gen. 33:10). When Jesus said, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow" (Matt. 6:28), I think he was saying to read deeper spiritually and understand the spiritual lesson there: how God cares for us can be taught by lilies! So we must read the Bible again and again. It's the same thing with stars and animals and people. We have to read -- see the spiritual -- in everything.

So then science and religion are not contradictory for you?
I don't think that the foundations of religion or science are in conflict because both are based on inspiration from God, or the Principle of the universe -- the "illimitable Spirit," which is what Einstein called it. Religion is based on sacredness, order, harmony, simplicity. And so is science. Science and religion have many of the same concepts but use different words. Inspiration is inspiration -- all from the same source.

Are there any particular instances in which you've used inspiration from the Bible?
Jesus' healings are inspirational to me both in health and in work. There have been times when we've hit a wall in research, when some scientists think there's not an answer, or when we don't feel like we have enough intelligence to solve a problem. But I know that there are solutions to all problems, for underlying everything is the unlimited spiritual nature of things which God really made. All problems can be overcome by understanding that the universe will reveal itself. I've been accused of doing science like an artist -- building air castles and then putting foundations under them. My ideas may not at first appear logical, but I work to show how they solve the problem logically afterward. I actually think most science is done this way -- inspiration first, then logical justification for the already known conclusion.

How does thinking like an artist help you as a scientist?
I've gotten a reputation for coming up with the initial idea and then solving some problems this way. So when people get stuck, they come to me. A NASA mission asked if I would solve a problem. I knew there would be an answer, even though I didn't know what it was, and we did find an answer that worked when it had seemed a dead end before. I know people who are better at signal detection, astronomical observing, mathematics, and other areas than I am, but my contribution is most often, "But what if we did this?" I completely rely on bolts of inspiration for my contribution to science. I'd say that's my specialty, but I think many others work this way also. But I know that I wouldn't be able to contribute much to science if it weren't for this inspirational approach. It's all about listening, but also knowing there must be an answer, too.

How do you listen effectively for answers?
If you start out with the thought that there may not be an answer, you can get discouraged. But when I'm sure that there's an answer, I find that I listen much better. When you're really listening, the true answer comes to you. When we rely on intuition, we feel at one with the universe, at one with God, because our deep intuition is allowing us to communicate with expectancy, to hear what the Universe is telling us. In fact, our deepest intuition is what God is telling us.

How do inspiration and intuition apply to careers?
Often people say, "I don't know what to do with my career." My response is, "What do you love?" I use this as a guide for myself, asking: "Is this fun? Do I love this?" I have a low tolerance for not doing what I love. It's by what you love that God is telling you what you need to be doing with your career. But it doesn't mean, "I love fame and want to be an actor;" or, "I love money and so have to be a banker;" or whatever. Material reward is not a very good reason for choosing a career. When you have to do something because you love it and because God wants you to do it, then you're going to be good at it. You won't be the best at something you don't love. I love to teach -- with astronomy, with cosmic ideas. I also love little critters, and I really love ideas that might connect possible extraterrestrial communications with interspecies signals.

Have you all found anything in your search?
SETI folks have detected 18 signals they couldn't explain. Like the movie, "Contact," the signals went away, and so they don't count. So far, nothing has been confirmed through radio signals. I'm not sure how long a species will use radio frequency to communicate. We only used TV for a few decades. We now have cable, so we're not leaking TV signals. On the other hand, if an advanced civilization is looking for others, they may use radio signals to find us, for example. But my intuition tells me that the radio search is still a bit naïve (it's a brand new science, only about 40 years old). But there are still a lot of stars to try with radio technology. It could be, though, that we'll detect other beings when we build quantum computers which would allow instantaneous teleportation of information back and forth without having to transmit across space. It could be that's what extraterrestrials really use. There's no real show stopper to say that species couldn't develop other technology. Chimps have been caught chipping rocks; ravens use sticks to get their food; sea otters use rocks to open shells. So, in tool making, we're not unique; we're just a few 100,000 years ahead of the next species perhaps. In a galaxy of 30 billion stars like the sun, with planets around other stars, there are big unknowns, questions like: How many planets form in the habitable zone? How many species develop radio technology? There are lots of ways of sending signals. Every civilization of humans, for example, has studied astronomy -- no exceptions. Also, every human culture has communication. The only thing missing are tools to transmit over interstellar distances.

What would you say to people who want to pursue astronomy or other sciences?
You'll work hard in school, but you'll play for the rest of life. You may have to skip a few dances to get your physics homework done, but it's worth it.

About Laurance R. Doyle

B.S., San Diego State University
M.S., San Diego State University
Ph.D. University of Heidelberg, Germany

Laurance R. Doyle is President of PlanetQuest, a non-profit educational institution bringing astronomical discovery via distributed computing to millions of internet users. For the previous 19 years he has been a Principal Investigator with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California doing research on the photometric detection of extrasolar planets (discovering two new methods of finding planets and improving a third method), the application of information theory to animal communications studies and SETI, the study of the habitability of star systems, and the development of quantum astronomy. He has been a visiting professor of both Physics and History at Principia College teaching introductory astronomy, quantum physics, thermodynamics, astronomical observing, Native American history, history of science, Russian history, and African history. He has been a visiting lecturer at University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching classes on Life in the Universe, and on Light and Optics, and has also been a visiting professor at the University of Paris. Previous to SETI Institute he worked at NASA Ames Research Center on planetary rings, and before that at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a Voyager spacecraft imaging engineer, receiving several NASA awards for excellence. He is author or co-author of over one hundred refereed scientific papers and book chapters. He has lectured and written for the Christian Science Church and is currently a special lecturer for the Christian Science Board of Lectureship and a contributing editor for the Christian Science periodicals.

Member of:
International Astronomical Union
American Astronomical Society