Sheri Wells

October 30, 2023

SIU’s Tenney lecture to look at evolving communication, even with space aliens

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Keeping an open mind and considering other possibilities, including communicating with space aliens, is the centerpiece of a Nov. 2 lecture hosted by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s University Honors Program and the School of Languages and Linguistics.

Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of linguistics at Bowling Green State University and a 1993 SIU Carbondale alumna, will present “Interstellar Challenge: Would blind aliens build telescopes?” at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2.

The presentation in Morris Library’s John C. Guyon Auditorium is part of the Charles D. Tenney Distinguished Lecture series and is co-sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts. The presentation is free and open to the public. The lecture will also be available via Zoom; registration is available.

Media advisory

To arrange for interviews, contact Lauren Stoelzle, University Honors Program, at 618-453-2824 or

Wells-Jensen’s presentation fits with the honors program’s “Cosmos and Culture” theme, said Jyotsna Kapur, University Honors Program director.

“As we prepare for the total solar eclipse in April 2024, the theme has a special significance for us locally,” Kapur said. “Yet, there is a long history of humans imagining our relationship with those far in space and those in close proximity, such as other forms of life on our own planet. Imagining the cosmos is as much an exercise in science and technological invention as it in world-making and artistic creation.”

Kapur hopes the presentation “will fire up people’s imagination about the creativity of the human species and how taking vision for granted limits our ability to grasp our relationship to the cosmos.”

Expert in xenolinguistics

Wells-Jensen notes there is more than one way “to be alive in the universe.” She is an expert in xenolinguistics — which is the study of the forms of potential languages and language systems used by nonhumans. Wells-Jensen, who is fully blind, believes the job of anyone who wants to understand another living being “is to question our assumptions, set them up in a row on a shelf and knock each one down one after the other.”

“The point is to own the reality that we don’t know who or what or what’s are out there,” she said. “We have to do what we can to remove ourselves from the center and pay attention from another perspective. Since we don’t know what any extraterrestrial, or ET, intelligence will be like, we have to be as open as possible.”

One start is to begin with stereotypes about blindness, she said. “For example, how would blind aliens live their lives, do science and create technology, and can we begin to apply that kind of open-mindedness to each other?”

Contact with aliens would be a “worldwide phenomenon, shaking the foundations of everything we know,” she said.

“We will have to be very clever and very wise. It’s a good idea to prepare for something that huge,” she said. “The obvious result of this kind of work is that we will be more ready for ET when they appear. The less obvious, but more immediate result, is that maybe we will find out more about ourselves as we search for ET and maybe become better humans.”

Involvement with NASA

Wells-Jensen is the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress chair in astrobiology, exploration and scientific innovation at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. She has worked as a linguistic consultant at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and as ground support crew for flyers with disabilities aboard zero-G missions.

Earlier this year, Wells-Jensen spent six days in a hermetically sealed habitat at the University of Arizona Biosphere 2 to learn what it would be like living on Mars or the moon. The experience was “an honor wrapped in a privilege tucked into an awesome opportunity,” she said.

“I learned that access to space is not as far away as we might have thought; that we already know most of what we need to do to make a space habitat accessible to anyone,” she said, noting space is a “profoundly dangerous environment.”

“We may not intend to send disabled people into space, but it’s a good bet that space will disable many of them once they are there. So we have to plan for that — make sure the structures, tools and procedures we put in place will still work for astronauts who become disabled far from home.”

Wells-Jensen contributed a chapter, “Cognition, Sensory Input, and Linguistics: A Possible Language for Blind Aliens” to “Xenolinguistics: Towards a Science of Extraterrestrial Language,” which Jeffrey Punske, associate professor in linguistics, co-edited. She is also working on a book about disability and space.

Returning to campus

Wells-Jensen recalls making the “daily hike from family housing to Faner Hall.” She earned her master’s degree in Spanish and applied linguistics in 1993.

“I learned a thousand things and met some extraordinarily kind and clever people. I am glad to be visiting,” she said.

The lecture series honors Tenney, whose 42-year history with SIU Carbondale included duties as coach, professor and administrator. He served as the university’s provost and vice president from 1952 to 1971 before he retired in 1973. He was instrumental in organizing, planning and transforming SIU Carbondale from a teachers college to a comprehensive research university.