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How researching the octopus could help us understand aliens

Dominic Sivitilli
Dominic Sivitilli

Dominic Sivitilli grew up on a farm. 

“It was a beautiful place to grow up," Dominic said. "We had all ranges of animals, with a really ancient forest, with a really majestic river there. And so there was just an incredible amount of adventure to my childhood. That was my backyard. And so my mind always kind of drifted to ‘where the hell did this all come from?’”

Dominic is a graduate student at the University of Washington these days. What drew him there was his fascination with biodiversity — the whole wide sweep of life on earth, and especially, how different life forms think, what he calls cognitive complexity.  

“My two main interests that came out of that was the evolution of the mind, and then life itself," Dominic said. "So the origin of life itself.” 

This might be a good time to mention that Dominic and I met up at a conference on astrobiology, meaning the study of life beyond earth. 

Dominic got here partly because of revelations he had while studying invertebrates at Friday Harbor Lab. That research led him to this thought: We can better imagine what an alien intelligence looks like if we more clearly understand some of the aliens among us. 

“Of all the invertebrates that were in that lab that I was studying, there was one that was seeming studying me as much as I was studying it,” he said. 

And that creature was an octopus. In this story, hear how Dominic draws parallels between how he looked to this octopus to understand how aliens might think.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.