10 Questions for Jill Tarter, Astronomer

The long-time SETI astronomer discusses the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and helping inspire a Carl Sagan novel.

Jill Tarter. Photo by Seth Shostak/SETI
Jill Tarter. Photo by Seth Shostak/SETI

Jill Tarter has dedicated most of her career to answering one question: Are we alone? Although we don’t yet have the answer, that doesn’t deter the astronomer and SETI Institute‘s Bernard Oliver Chair for SETI Research from continuing the pursuit. ScienceFriday.com talked with Tarter about the influence her dad had on her career trajectory, looking for E.T., and finding a kindred spirit in the protagonist of a Carl Sagan novel.

When did you know that you wanted to become a scientist?
When I was eight years old I had what we called in my house a ‘washing machine conversation.’ I’d sit on top of the washing machine so that I would be eye-to-eye with my dad. I had been spending all my time with him hunting and fishing and camping, all those things he would have done if he’d had a son. My mother suggested I spend more time with her and do girl things, so my father proceeded to convey that information to me. I just could not understand why I had to make a choice. Why couldn’t I do it all? I pulled out the tears (because that’s the way you always get your dad on your side), and at the end of it he said, ‘Well, I guess if you’re willing to work hard enough, you can do anything you want.’ I said, ‘I’m going to be an engineer,’ because it was the most male thing I could think of. Then my dad died when I was 12, and I kept that ambition because I told him that I was going to do it, and God damn it, I did it.

Who was your favorite science teacher?
I took physics in my senior year of high school, and our teacher, Doc, looked very much like my dad had looked. He was incredibly helpful and supportive of me. My fondest memory is that he helped me silver-plate a chicken wishbone, just like you would a piece of jewelry. That sounds like a really stupid thing to do, but at this time the thing to do for girls was to wear a chicken wishbone around your neck. So, I thought, if I’m going to do that, I want mine to be silver plated, so I went to Doc, and I said, ‘How do I do this?’ He didn’t know how, so we just worked on it. We were able to take enough pencils, and rub enough lead into the bone, that we could get it to conduct electricity. Then we silver-plated it. I had this beautiful chicken wishbone that was silver for a day, and then tarnished.

Who’s your scientific idol?
Richard Feynman. He was the most human of individuals. During my freshman year as an engineer at Cornell, he came and did a big lecture series. He said he got a lot of crank mail, and he read every piece of it because he couldn’t stand the thought that somebody with the ability to think in different ways would come up with an idea that he had missed. These days, when I get an enormous amount of that kind of stuff, I have to admit that I at least scan it because Richard Feynman said I might end up getting a clever idea that way.

If you’ll allow me a second scientific idol, it’s Admiral Grace Hopper [who worked for the Navy and was a pioneer in computing]. I just love her sense of, ‘It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.’ I thought that was a pretty good way to deal with a world that wasn’t necessarily as open and welcoming to women in certain fields as it should have been.

Then I actually have a third hero: Margaret Burbidge. Margaret’s an astronomer, probably best known for a paper that she wrote that explains how stars create heavier and heavier elements by fusing them in a process of nucleosynthesis. That’s what makes stars shine, that’s where all the heavy elements in the universe came from. But the thing I really, really admire Margaret for is that she opened the mountaintops for all women in astronomy. When she came to the U.S. she applied for time at the telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California and was denied. ‘You couldn’t have a woman there; it would be just too disruptive to our male colleagues,’ they said, so she had her husband Jeff put in the observing proposal the next cycle. She went as Jeff’s night assistant, and she did this for something like two years. Then she reapplied for telescope time on her own. They said, ‘We already told you that it would not be possible.’ She said, ‘What the hell? I’ve been there for the last two years and nobody noticed, nobody was disrupted. Give it up!’ Then that was the end of it. Women were allowed to become observers on the mountaintops.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
I was very proud to be the project scientist for NASA’s SETI program, and that we launched the first systematic program to search for evidence of other technologies. I actually felt proud for humans in general on that day. I thought, Here’s something that we’re actually embarking on because of curiosity. It’s an old human question, and we’re really investing a little bit in trying to answer that question, and I thought that was phenomenal. [NASA’s program ended in 1993, but the SETI Institute picked up where it left off.]

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What are the main areas of SETI research? 
SETI is all about trying to find evidence of a distant technological civilization. If we can detect the technologies, we will infer that, at least at some point, there were some intelligent technologists who built the system. There are two primary ways for looking for technology at the moment. One is to look for optical flashes of light—pulses that are so short in time that they’re not likely to have been made by an astrophysical source. The other way is to use radio telescopes to look for deliberately broadcast or leakage signals [meaning, technologists have emitted signals purposefully or accidentally]. You look for something that’s obviously engineered. What that means changes over time as our technology changes. We do what we can with the tools that we understand right now. It might very well be that we’re not looking for or listening for the right thing at all yet.

Is there a dream scientific discovery that you wish you could make?
I’m definitely interested in answering this ‘Are we alone?’ question. So that’s my dream, that humanity will be able to come to a better understanding of where we came from and how we fit into the cosmos potentially with other intelligent species.

Do you think we will find the answer to that?
Well, we won’t if we don’t look. The answer could be that we are unique—that is a physical possibility. In physics we have this funny way of counting. We count one, two, infinity, and so when you have some phenomenon and you’ve only seen one example of it, you don’t know whether it’s unique. But the moment you find a second example, then you know that there are many.

Is it true that you’re the inspiration for the main character in Carl Sagan’s book Contact?
Carl wrote a book about a woman who does what I do. There was a meeting at Cornell that I went to, and Carl said, ‘Come on up to the house; we’re having a cocktail reception tonight.’ When I got there, he and Annie [Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan] took me aside. Annie said, ‘Carl’s writing this science fiction book.’ And I said, ‘I know. The New York Times told us what kind of advance he got, and we’re all jealous as hell.’ Then Carl said, ‘Well, you may think you recognize one of the characters.’ And Annie said, ‘I think you’ll like her.’

Did you like the book?
I did. I was expecting the character to be someone that I might vaguely empathize with, but I started reading the book, and I thought, ‘What? Carl doesn’t know this about me! How did he know that?’ Then I remembered an event hosted by, as I recall, the American Association of University Women, where we asked each other how it was that we ended up with these Ph.D.s and didn’t fall out of the pipeline before that. What was it that allowed us to succeed at least to this level? We found out that for well over half of us, our fathers were the major influence in our early lives, and our fathers had died young. We came up with the explanation that we all learned the carpe diem lesson: to seize opportunities when they arise because they won’t always be there. [The results of the discussion were included in a report, but it’s unclear if they were formally published.] The reason I’m going on about this is because I actually sent Carl a copy of that study at one point, and I realized that I was the absolute poster girl for that study. I think he just used the study rather than me personally for those bits of the character.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
Scientific exploration, which comes naturally to all of us. If you work at it, you can spend your whole life in that mode of puzzle-solving and answering questions. It is absolutely the most rewarding thing. I can’t promise that SETI will detect a signal at any time, but I can be very sure that we’ll do a better job tomorrow than we’re doing today because we’ll have figured out a way to do it even better. Learning new things is a real high.

Meet the Writer

About Susan Cosier

Susan Cosier is a writer and editor who covers science, health, and the environment. She is a Midwest correspondent for OnEarth.org.

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