Illustration by Erin Taj

When a Dolphin or a Space Probe Breaks Your Heart

Scientists are trained to be detached, but often it’s impossible to not get emotional with one’s subject

Margaret Lovatt, née Howe, was in her early 20s when she went to the Caribbean in search of adventure. She had recently dropped out of Tulane University, as she told Radiolab in 2014, and had never been to any island at all. So, in the early 1960s, she moved to St. Thomas and got a job at a hotel.

But her career took an unexpectedly academic turn, despite her lack of a college degree. During an impromptu visit to a NASA-funded lab studying the way dolphins communicate, Howe impressed researchers with her astute observations on dolphin behavior and was offered an unusual job: to teach a dolphin named Peter how to speak English.

Woman and Dolphin

The scientists at this lab were not completely insane, despite the exotic nature of their work. Lead researcher John Lilly had studied the species since 1957, and zeroed in on the potential for dolphins to communicate with humans after his wife Mary noticed how the mammals appeared to mimic the sounds of researchers’ speech. “They have been on the planet now with brains our size or larger for 25 million years,” Lilly later wrote on his website, “We’ve only been here with our present brain size about two-tenths of a million years. I’d just like to talk to such ancient beings.”

Soon, NASA and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) became interested in the work. “We wanted to understand as much as we could about what the challenges were going to be in communication with other intelligent species,” says Frank Drake, founder of the SETI Institute. Since no aliens were available, communicating with dolphins seemed like a good place to start. With funding from NASA and other groups, Lilly began researching the possibility of human-dolphin communication with three dolphins in a facility he built on St. Thomas.

There Howe made it her job to work with Peter day and night — far beyond the scope of the original experiment. She began sleeping right alongside Peter in a flooded room, administering English lessons six days a week. As everyone on the team soon learned, dolphins bond quite strongly to humans, and Peter and Howe became very attached. They knew each other’s moods and when the other was frustrated. Though there’s no evidence he understood English, Peter appeared as if he really wanted to learn what Howe was trying to teach him. The young dolphin also expressed himself sexually with Howe, frequently rubbing himself on her knees or feet.

“I allowed that, I wasn’t uncomfortable with that,” Howe told the BBC in their documentary The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins. At first, Howe would send Peter to play with the female dolphins when he would start to get rambunctious, but when that began taking too much time away from their lessons, Howe started to quell his urges herself manually. “It was sexual on his part, it was not sexual on mine,” she says—it was just a way to get the distraction from English lessons out of the way. “That’s really all it was,” says Howe, “I was there to get to know Peter and that was part of Peter.”

But while Howe and Peter were bonding, Lilly was developing interests more psychedelic than the prospect of talking dolphins, even. He’d become fascinated by LSD’s effects on the mind (and gave it to two of the dolphins, with minimal noticeable effects). His main collaborator grew frustrated by the new direction of Lilly’s interests and abandoned the project. Soon after, the last of Lilly’s funding dried up, the experiment was shut down, and the St. Thomas facility closed up shop. The three dolphins were flown back to Florida, including Peter.

Howe, for her part, stayed behind. “He wasn’t mine. I couldn’t keep him,” Howe said in the documentary. She describes getting misty-eyed during her last day with Peter, “Because at that point I knew and Peter didn’t know. I knew that that was the end.”

It’s common for researchers to get attached to their subjects. In Howe’s case, it was to a dolphin she literally lived with, but in science, attachment and subsequent heartbreak can show up in all sorts of places. Scientists are trained to conduct their research ethically, but there’s no training to prevent emotional attachment. They’re humans and they feel heartbreak when experiments go wrong, when they lose funding for their research, and, as in the case of climate change, when their finding are denied. Sometimes, as in Howe’s case, they experience disappointment because of a connection to the subject, but other times it’s because of how much of themselves researchers put into the work; Scientists can feel heartache even when working with very small lifeforms.

Ashley Campbell, a postdoctoral researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, had such an experience as a graduate student at Cornell University in 2012, even though she was working with some of the tiniest units of life.

For her first major project, Campbell ran an experiment that aimed to measure what microorganisms in soil were eating (“to map the microbial food web,” in Campbell’s words), which required collecting gas samples every four hours from containers of microorganism-infused soil. But after she had spent a year preparing the experiment and sleepless months running it, disaster struck: The gas had leaked out of vials storing some 1,500 samples, throwing off all of her measurements. She had nothing to show for all of her work and would have to start over.

“I broke down and cried in the middle of this lab,” she remembers. “There was nothing else to do. I was just so heartbroken.”

Even though Campbell couldn’t see her research subjects, she felt despair for some of the same reasons as Howe. But heartbreak in science isn’t limited to the study of living things—as when the Rosetta mission ended last September. Launched by the European Space Agency in 2004, Rosetta spent 10 years traveling to its target, Comet 67P, and two more years in orbit.

“I always say I have three children,” Kathrin Altwegg, a principal investigator who’s put in 20 years on the project, likes to say. “Two daughters and ROSINA.” (ROSINA is one of the instruments on the Rosetta orbiter.) The day Rosetta crashed into the comet last fall, as a planned part of the experiment that let scientists collect data from near the comet’s surface, was an emotional one for Altwegg. “To know that this was the end, yes, it was sad.”

The same goes for Andrea Accomazzo, the Rosetta flight director who first worked on Philae, the lander sent to collect data from the comet’s surface. “I was very, very emotional when Philae landed,” he says. Because of that, he knew to prepare for Rosetta’s crash. “I put a lot of effort into preparing myself psychologically for this,” he says. “It was a bittersweet moment.”

Regular people who had followed the mission over the years experienced strong feelings of loss at the mission’s end too. On Twitter, @ddfairchild said, “Is it OK to be sad about the end of a space mission? Well done, Rosetta.” Mashable’s deputy science editor Miriam Kramer tweeted, “Aaaaand I’m crying about a spacecraft. Oh dear.” And @hollygraphic said, “Bye Rosetta probe! You’ve been cool and gave your life for science.”

ESA only helped fuel the emotional response with its major public outreach campaign around the space probe, which included the cartoon series, “The Amazing Adventures of Rosetta and Philae,” starring anthropomorphized versions of the orbiter and lander. The ESA also created Twitter accounts that tweeted from Rosetta’s and Philae’s perspectives. For those not already tearing up during Rosetta’s final moments, Philae’s tweet, “Rosetta, is that you?” probably did them in.

A few weeks after Peter the dolphin left, John Lilly called Margaret Howe to deliver some heartbreaking news: Peter had committed suicide. “And I use that term with some trepidation at the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, but it does describe what is indeed self-induced asphyxiation,” says Ric O’Barry, a friend of Lilly’s and founder of the Dolphin Project. Dolphins, unlike us, have to consciously breathe. “If life becomes too unbearable, the dolphins just take a breath and sink to the bottom,” says O’Barry. “They don’t take that next breath.”

Andy Williamson, the veterinarian that worked on Lilly’s project with Howe, says in the documentary, “You could think that Margaret could rationalize it. But when she left, could Peter? Here’s the love of his life gone.” Lilly eventually changed how he thought of dolphins, deciding that they were animals that should be worked with, not on. He released all of his dolphin subjects into the wild and spent the end of his career and life campaigning against dolphin captivity — work that ultimately contributed to the creation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

As for Howe, she ended up marrying the photographer who documented her work at the Dolphin House. They converted the flooded building into a home and lived there for ten years, raising three daughters. And despite all of the criticism that surrounded the St. Thomas dolphin project at its end, Howe still looks back on those months she spent with Peter fondly: “I was very lucky.”