Space Artist Brings 'Alien Worlds' To Life

Apr 2, 2014
Originally published on April 2, 2014 2:51 pm

David Aguilar’s office at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a lot like any office in the building — except it’s full of aliens.

Aguilar is director of public affairs and science information there and in his latest book for young scientists, “Alien Worlds: Your Guide to Extraterrestrial Life,” he takes information about real exo-planets that are in an orbit around stars that might be able sustain life, throws in a little imagination to fill in the spaces and dreams up what kind of plants, animals and other things might live there.

Here & Now’s Robin Young pays him a visit to talk about the worlds he’s created.


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YOUNG: David Aguilar's office at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass, is like any in the building except it's full of aliens. Look, they're lining his windowsill. There he is photo-shopped with them on his computer. We have proof, by the way, pictures at Because in addition to his role as director of public affairs and science information at the Harvard-Smithsonian, David is an astrophysicist and space author and illustrator for National Geographic.

And in his latest book in their kids' series, he takes real information about exoplanets that orbit stars and might be able to sustain life, and then while he's sleeping, he literally dreams up what alien life might live there. His book is "Alien Worlds." When we visited yesterday, we asked how and why this all started.

DAVID AGUILAR: Well, I took it as if this was an adventure that young children, young scientists could take themselves. And so I dreamed myself into some of these planets and what it would be like, what the atmosphere would look like, what the clouds, what the color of the sky would be, what the weather would be like because some of these worlds are very bizarre.

They may be Earth-like in temperatures and capability for things to live on them, but they are very different than anything we find here on Earth.

YOUNG: Well, so here we have a picture in front of us of some sort of a rock formation, a beautiful pink and blue sky and then this thing in the foreground. What is that?


AGUILAR: This is a tripid(ph), and it's on a world, sadly, that is dying. And this is something that we don't quite think about sometimes, but there are life expectancies of planets. The Earth has a life expectancy. We have about another billion years, and then things are going to start going south. Actually, this is the golden age for life on Earth.

And this is a world that surpassed that. It's a little bit older than us, by about a billion years, and times are getting tough on this world. It's getting hotter. Oceans are evaporating. Rivers are drying up. Many of the trees and the plants we'd normally find, they've long gone. So these are the survivors on this dying world.

YOUNG: It's, you call it a tripid. Let's try to describe this. It's sort of a - it looks like a seal, big, fat seal only with big, fat legs that have almost like suction cups on the bottom. And instead of a mouth there, it's like a Hoover vacuum or something.

AGUILAR: These are beautiful creatures in that they don't have eyes. They don't have a mouth like we would have a mouth, and yet they can see. They will use radar to ping off their environment to give them a very clear picture of what they're seeing. And they don't really walk; they glide on these three big legs that come down onto the sand and into the water.

YOUNG: Oh, that's a leg, not a mouth?

AGUILAR: No, those are legs. The mouth is right here in the center with this creature it has just pulled up out of the water. It is teaching the little one over here how to fish.

YOUNG: Oh, see - sorry, I thought that was a mouth. It's a leg.


YOUNG: And then the mouth is sort of this smaller thing coming out of the middle of the thing. You created this; you made this out of clay.

AGUILAR: I did. A lot of these I made out of clay. Then I would - or I'd make them out of plaster or plastic. And then I would go back with Photoshop and add skin and eyes and everything that makes it look alive.

YOUNG: And you've Photoshopped it into this world here on the screen. But let's go over on the windowsill here. You have some of these creatures. OK, so over here we have the tripid thing with the three legs. A couple down, it looks like an upside-down hand with the fingers on the ground, only there's like four or five more. And at the top of this creature is a mouth with a couple eyes and maybe a nose. You dreamed that?

AGUILAR: I certainly did, but what I built this creature for was to show students around the world that they could make things themselves. And so this was done as a demonstration as to how to make your own alien. It's in the back of the book, to show them that they, too, can participate in taking a look at how life adapts here on Earth, and they can make their own creatures.

YOUNG: What do you want young people to think about? I mean, the sill is lined with creatures. Here's another one that looks like a praying mantis.


It's a guardian, and we here on Earth separate life into plants and animals. And yet on this world that we're looking at right here, Chaos is the name of the planet, it actually has a crossbreed between plants and animals, and this is one of the guardians of this other creature.

We see this here on Earth, we see that ants themselves use aphids as cows. They milk them and take the sweet juice out of them and keep them alive. And so here is a half-plant, half-animal that has its own troop of warriors that protect it from other creatures on this world.

YOUNG: Next to it is, well frankly this looks like the body of a cockroach without - oh wait, on the underneath, there's - you just showed me the underneath. There's a little more going on. But it looks like the shell of a cockroach.

AGUILAR: It does. It's called a wabbeloni(ph), but it's big. It's the size of an elephant here on Earth. And it lives in the desert, again this is on Moros(ph), the dying world.

YOUNG: In your mind.

AGUILAR: In my mind, but it has adapted, and that shell serves a distinct purpose for it. In the daytime when the sun shines so bright, it clamps down onto the soil, protects itself, and at night it wanders around looking for water.

YOUNG: So how do you get kids - obviously your book does this, but what do you try to do to get kids to think about how they might make an alien? Like what are the elements that you ask them to think about?

AGUILAR: You'd have to figure out what the gravity is on the planet. The less gravity you have, the taller, the thinner you will grow. The more gravity you have, the shorter and fatter you will grow or that you'll need more legs than we happen to have here. The temperature, does it get really hot, does it get really cold? How do creatures on this world protect themselves from those extremes?

Does it jump back and forth? How would you adapt for that? Is there plenty of oxygen? Is there not too much oxygen? Will they need bigger lungs? All of this goes into the consideration for all of these odd little creatures that exist in my mind and certainly could exist on other worlds. There are just so many choices and possibilities out there.

YOUNG: It is, I mean it's really quite something. I'm sure you've had children interact with it. What do they do?

AGUILAR: I have so far. They love it. And they love going back into their classroom or at home because the clay I picked was a very simple clay that you can use. It's nontoxic. You can bake it in the oven, and it becomes hard. So they've started creating their own creatures and their own alien worlds, which is wonderful because they're taking all the sciences. They're taking physics, they're taking mathematics, they're taking astronomy, biology, botany, all of these things and now thinking it through and deciding to create their own alien worlds.

YOUNG: Well, one last question. We spoke with the head of Kepler Mission. He said he thinks we might find extraterrestrial life within a decade. We spoke with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He said he thinks Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, is a good candidate. You have been dreaming this, modeling this. Care to place a bet which planet it'll be and when it'll be?

AGUILAR: I think Europa is out biggest bet, but I wrote this book for a very different reason. I know that within the next decade, two at the most, we will discover life in the universe. We are now building the world's largest telescopes, the giant Magellan Telescope, the 30-meter telescope, the extremely large telescope. They have 10 times the resolution of Hubble.

Every young school kid sitting in class today will know in their lifetime whether or not there's life in the universe and where it is outside of our solar system, and these instruments will do it.

YOUNG: What a thrilling thought. And they might as well get practice in imagining it now.

AGUILAR: That's why I wrote this book.

YOUNG: David Aguilar, thank you so much.

AGUILAR: Robin, it was my pleasure.

YOUNG: And again, we visited him in his office at the Harvard-Smithsonian here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His book "Alien World" is out, and it's wonderful, and it makes us think about what do we dream? Nothing like his. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.