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Warwick researcher & Science Museum challenge TV & movies unscientific aliens

Ian Stewart at the Science Museum
Professor Ian Stewart at the
Science Museum Aliens exhibit
Link to print quality picture
What would life on other planets look like? Forget little green men, alien life is likely to be completely unrecognizable. This week University of Warwick researcher Professor Ian Stewart travels to London's Science Museum's new Aliens exhibition and uses his visit to explain how horrendously unscientific many of film and television's depictions of aliens are, and to outline the latest real scientific thinking on the possibility of life on other planets and what it could look like.

Professor Stewart argues that popular culture fails miserably to give us anything approaching a scientifically sound idea of what an alien could look like. Many authors and film-makers simply rely on making their aliens in our humanoid image such as Star Trek's Mr Spock or Klingons. Even when a bit more imagination is used science is ignored in favour of simply reproducing the cosyily familiar such as the teddy bear like Ewoks in the film Return of the Jedi, or the remarkable resemblance of ET to the size and behavior patterns of a human toddler.

When they are not being cuddly The aliens on our TV and film screens have become a "quasi-scientific stand-in" for ghosts, ghouls and fairies, or modern-day bogeymen or drawing on our phobias of real and mythical animals like spiders, snakes and dragons.

The most famous unscientific dragon shaped alien comes from the Alien series which has an unlikely life cycle which faces a number of serious scientific problems as Professor Stewart says:

"The dragonesque alien queen lays her eggs, which are apparently about the size of a football, in the open where they apparently wait for thousands of years for a spaceship to land near them. When it does, any that have survived hungry egg-eaters for all that time hatch out. They have the immediate ability to invade terrestrial mammalian hosts and live inside them, where the nutrients are just right for them. How did they become able to avoid our tissue-recognition immune system? Or how to design just the right local anaesthetic so that the host doesn't know he's got an object the size of his heart - extra - in his chest? Are they turned to people, in fact, or are they general-purpose parasites - a concept that would make any parasite specialist scream?"

Professor Stewart argues that "We've got to get away from all those comfortable ideas that aliens will be just like us, except for a few minor differences that don't challenge our imagination. - real aliens will be very alien indeed."

The truly alien may inhabit planets utterly different from earth. Many different habitats can theoretically support life, not just a water and oxygen based planet. Anywhere that physical matter exists and there is an energy source could lead to the development of something of sufficient complexity that we would categorise it as "life".

Even on earthlike planets life could be very different - The development of spines and skeletons is, he says, an evolutionary accident that could well be unique to Earth. "If you ran Planet Earth again, the chances are you wouldn't get vertebrates. You wouldn't get creatures with a jointed spine."

For further information contact:

Professor Ian Stewart
Deoartment of Mathematics
University of Warwick
Tel 024 76 52 3740

Peter Dunn, Press and Media Relations Manager,
University of Warwick Tel: 024 76 523708
or 07767 655860 email:

PR78 PJD 8th November 2005