Beakerhead's Alien Talk Show draws on MRU expertise

Neuroscientist speculates on extraterrestrial beings and how they might look

Peter GlennMount Royal University | Posted: September 11, 2023

Dr. Sarah Hewitt, PhD.

Sarah Hewitt says alien life would likely be subject to the same environmental factors that shaped the appearance of life on Earth.

Beakerhead is going where no talk show has gone before, delving into the concept of extraterrestrial life and how it might appear.

Science communicator Jay Ingram will engage with a lineup of distinguished guests to discuss what aliens might look like if they existed as a skilled sketch artist brings to life the vivid visions of the guests, creating a gallery of otherworldly beings. Ahead of The Alien Talk Show on Sept. 16, we checked in with one of those guests, Mount Royal University’s  Dr. Sarah Hewitt, PhD, a professor in neuroscience in the Department of Biology, to gauge her thoughts on alien life and what she’s expecting from the talk show.

The Alien Talk Show on Sept. 16.

The Alien Talk Show; Sept. 16 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. — Contemporary Calgary

As the show gets closer, what have you been thinking about regarding the makeup and appearance of alien beings?

Well if we go by what Hollywood tells us, aliens will either look like some derivative of a human or they'll be insect-like, but either way, they'll be here to attack us. However, I'm not sure I buy into that. When we're talking about life on another planet, it can mean single-celled organisms all the way up to complex, multicellular ones, but I think it's the latter that we're most interested in, at least for the purposes here.

Just as there are many different species on Earth, I think you can expect that there would be many different alien species and they would have evolved and adapted to their specific planet's conditions –  the gasses in the atmosphere, pressure, gravity, amount of light. We often look to the species considered "extremophiles" – species that live at the extremes of temperature, pH, radiation – for examples of how species can evolve to withstand different environments.

As on Earth, aliens are probably subject to the forces of natural selection and can pass along their traits from one generation to the next. There is also the principle of convergent evolution whereby different species evolve similar traits in response to the environmental conditions in which they live. For example, eyes evolved multiple different times in species on Earth, so it's possible that species that live on a planet that has light, would evolve something akin to eyes. Species on Earth tend to be symmetrical so we might expect that in alien species too. And finally, it's possible that if we ever encounter an advanced, complex species, it may have evolved past the organic, soft, temporary, and fragile beings like us to where they engineer their own bodies and have become mechanical robots. There are endless possibilities of what they could look like  – now we just need to find them.

What can we learn about life here on earth from an event like this?

I think it's always valuable to consider alternative forms of life because it forces you to think outside the box and to try to apply the "rules" that govern living systems in new ways. This kind of projection might lead to creative solutions or perspectives that wouldn't otherwise have been achieved. And maybe thinking about sentient beings elsewhere can also make us more empathetic or drive us to take care of each other and our planet a little better since it is after all, the only place we know for sure where life exists.

Do you believe there is life on other worlds?

Yes! I'm an optimist, however. There are about 100 billion planets just in our Galaxy and it's thought that maybe around 20 per cent of them fall into the "habitable zone" so there's plenty of possibility, and finding even one alien species would completely change our view of the entire universe. I find that possibility super exciting. Of course, finding them is the hard part and if they find us first, then we're dealing with a much more advanced species than us and it's hard to say what that would look like. But it's all exciting to think about.

Read more about The Alien Talk Show, part of  Beakerhead.