A Mind in the Water

A long and thrilling profile of John Cunningham Lilly, America’s foremost mad dolphin scientist.

In fact, by 1962, Lilly even presided as the “Grand Dolphin” over a kind of semiserious secret society of prominent astrophysicists, radio astronomers, atmospheric chemists, and computer engineers who called themselves “The Order of the Dolphin,” wore small, engraved Tursiops insignia (a little like a tie clip), and exchanged messages in binary code to test each others’ readiness for extraterrestrial contact.

One of these visionary “Dolphins” was a brilliant young Harvard astrophysicist named Carl Sagan, who made his way down to St. Thomas several times in these years to meet Lilly’s dolphins and muse about alternate forms of life in the cosmos.

By 1964, “Want to come and see my dolphins?” had become an irresistible invitation.