I feel like I didn’t do my homework before I wrote In Praise of Ted Mooney, Part 1: Easy Travel to Other Planets. In his Acknowledgments, Mooney mentions that the explanation of sonar that Melissa, the novel’s dolphin researcher, provides, is based on a passage in John Lilly’s Lilly on Dolphins (1975). Had I looked at Lilly’s writings then, I would have known that there was a real world researcher who lived in a flooded house in St. Thomas with a dolphin named Peter for ten weeks trying to teach him to communicate in English.
John C. Lilly, MD (1915-2001) was a fascinating character. A neuroscientist by training, he invented isolation tanks that shut out as much as possible all sensory input to see what how the mind would react, and then began experimenting with LSD as he floated in the tanks. Following these experiences, he began studies of interspecies communication with dolphins. This led in the 1970s to the JANUS (Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System) project, which used computers to facilitate communication, but at the time the technologies were not adequate for the purpose, and, moreover, Lilly became uncomfortable treating dolphins as captive experimental subjects. His interests in the last decade of his life were oriented towards the intersection of neurobiology and theology.