Jill Tarter Is Still Searching For A Sign Of Life

17:05 minutes

Jill Tarter. Photo by Seth Shostak/SETI

Dr. Jill Tarter didn’t set out to be trailblazer and a role model for women in science. Instead, she had just one goal — find the answer to question “Are we alone in the universe?”

Whether intended or not, Dr. Tarter, one of the co-founders of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Silicon Valley, became a revolutionary figure in the field of astronomy. She talks with Ira about what it was like being the only female engineer at her university, the trials of funding a project to search for aliens, and whether we are ready to exchange an intergalactic handshake with other intelligent life in the universe.

[Jill Tarter answers 10 questions.]


Segment Guests

Jill Tarter

Jill Tarter is the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Back when Jill Tarter was a kid, she used to gaze up at the stars above her Florida home and wonder if those stars were somebody else’s suns. Perhaps a little girl just like her, on some far away planet. Of course, most people have a childhood story like this, a time when they fantasized about aliens, but Jill Tarter was different. She would grow up to be a pioneer in the field of astronomy, a trailblazer a role model for women in science.

She was the only female engineering student in her class of 300 before she went on to become a founding member of a brand new institute called SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. And to many, she’s known as the real life person who inspired the character of Ellie Arroway from Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, which then became a feature film starring Jodie Foster. And since her retirement in 2012, Jill Tarter has taken on perhaps her most challenging role, as SETI cheerleader, out to convince the world that the search is still on and still important. Dr. Jill Tarter is an astronomer, former director of SETI research, and she currently holds the Bernard M Oliver Chair for SETI. Welcome back to Science Friday, Jill.

JILL TARTER: Hi Ira, good to be back.

IRA FLATOW: Good to have you back. We’ve had on previously to discuss the big questions about intelligent life in the universe. But this new biography, Making Contact, it really brings to light all the challenges that the SETI project has faced over the years. It’s really been a roller coaster hasn’t it?

JILL TARTER: It has been. But now, with exoplanets and extremophiles, it just seems so much more relevant and realistic to be asking this question.

IRA FLATOW: And what were those early days of SETI like? Did you know it was going to be difficult to convince people of the value of searching for intelligent life?

JILL TARTER: Well, when you get a Golden Fleece Award early in your career, you probably get a clue that things aren’t going to be a smooth road ahead.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So was there then a golden age of SETI?

Oh Oh, I think we’re probably in it now. And just because SETI benefits, that is using radio telescopes and optical telescopes and massive amounts of computing to try and find signals and noise that benefits so much from the exponential growth in the computing industry that it’s hard to compare today with even yesterday. It’s just getting better.

IRA FLATOW: So is there one key tool you have today that you didn’t have back in those early days?

JILL TARTER: Well, yes. Certainly, the computing was just not up to the task when we tried to make it work at first. And it may not yet be up to the task. We may still have to go through additional generations of advances in computing before we can do the job that we’re trying to do. But Columbus didn’t wait for a 747 to get across the ocean, so we’re not waiting. We’re using the tools we have and trying to be as clever and smart with them as we possibly can be.

IRA FLATOW: So tell us why computing is so important to your project.

JILL TARTER: Well, we’re sifting through noise. So what we would like to do ideally in SETI, is look at all the sky, all the time, at all frequencies for all kinds of signals. And what we can do in reality is only a fraction of that. And we try and be clever about the fraction that we actually accomplish.

So the universe is emitting radiation across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Not just the visible part of the spectrum that your eyes see, or the radio part of the spectrum that television and radars make use of, but all frequencies. And embedded in there, there may be indications of engineering, some deliberate signals.

And we don’t know exactly what their characteristics might be. And so we have to use computers to search through all of that noise looking for artifacts. Indeed, when we use a radio telescope, there is this part of the spectrum that is particularly quiet naturally, where nature isn’t emitting a great deal of signal.

And that’s the region of the spectrum that we’d like to search systematically. But if we’re looking for engineered signals which happen to be compressed in frequency, that region of the spectrum is nine billion channels wide. And so it takes a computer and not a headset to search through them.

IRA FLATOW: I mentioned that you stood out as the only female engineer in your class at Cornell in the 1960s. Were you aware of the uniqueness of your position while that was going on?

JILL TARTER: I was very aware. And whenever I could, I tried to use it. Mostly, it was a handicap. Like being locked into the female dorms at night, and doing all of the homework assignments myself while my male colleagues were sharing out the problems and teaming on their side of the campus. But I got a really good education as a result, and I’ve been privileged to be able to find the problems that I think are very, very interesting to solve.

IRA FLATOW: In case you just joined us, I’m talking with Jill Tarter, famed for the Center for SETI Research. A 844-724-8255 is our number. Her new book is Making Contact. And of course, the public really got to know you when Carl Sagan used you as inspiration for the character of Ellie Arroway in his book, Contact, which then of course, became a movie. Did he tell you he was going to do that beforehand?

JILL TARTER: Well, Carl was a colleague, and he wrote a book about a woman who does what I do. He and Ann Druyan invited me to a cocktail party at their house once in Ithaca, and they said, well, Carl is writing this science fiction novel. And we said, oh, yeah, we know. We all read about the advance he got in New York Times last Sunday, and we’re all jealous as hell.

And they kind of laughed and they said, well, you might think that you recognize someone in the book, but we think you’ll like her. And I said, oh, come, on come on. All right, here’s the deal, just make sure she doesn’t eat ice cream cones for lunch, and then no one will think it’s me. Because that was sort of my signature characteristic or failing as we had– we walked to the Baskins and Robbins and had ice cream cones every noon.

IRA FLATOW: Did he cooperate on that?

JILL TARTER: Yeah. I don’t remember Ellie ever eating an ice cream cone. Drinking a beer, yeah, but not eating an ice cream cone.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me play a little– we have a little clip of the movie, of the movie version played by Jodie Foster, and I want to ask you about that after we listen to it.

ELLIE ARROWAY: Want to hear something really nutty? I heard about a couple of guys that want to build something called an airplane. You know, you get people to go in and they fly around like birds. It’s ridiculous, right? What about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the Moon, or atomic energy, or a mission to Mars?

Science fiction, right? Look all I’m asking is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision, you know? To step back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history of history.

IRA FLATOW: Jill, is that you? Does that–

JILL TARTER: I’ve certainly– yeah, I’ve certainly had to do that. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as dramatic as that scene. But yeah, the lines that precede the clip that you just played were, we know what to do, now all we need is the money. And certainly, that’s a line I’ve used quite frequently.

IRA FLATOW: And you’re still using it.

JILL TARTER: Oh, of course.

IRA FLATOW: Is that basically what your role as a SETI cheerleader is now? To go out and raise money?

JILL TARTER: Right. The coaster that we mentioned earlier is not a really great way to continue a scientific exploration that may have to go on for generations. And so what’s really needed for SETI is a funding vehicle that will allow this research to have a viable future, and a dependable future.

So that when we go and try and recruit the best and the brightest of our young scientists and engineers, it’s a hard sell to say, look, this is a really important question. It’s one you might not find a definitive answer to during your career. But you will find a great deal of reward and satisfaction in figuring out ways to do the job better than I’ve been able to do it. That’s a hard sell.

But then if you add to it, and oh, by the way, funding’s a bit of a problem, and I might not make your paycheck at the end of the month. Now that’s a real downer. And so we need someone or a group of someones with vision, who decide that yes, this old question is important.

Yes, this old question may take a long time to answer. We may not yet have the technology that is required to succeed. But we should be working on it, and we should in fact find a way to fund it into the future.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Jill Tarter, author of Making Contact. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s see if– oh yeah, lots of people want to talk to you. Let’s go to Tucson, to John in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, John.

JOHN: Hello, Ira. And hi, Jill.


JOHN: I’m so glad to be talking to you Jill. You came to the University of Arizona campus to give a talk, and I got confused and couldn’t find the room. Because apparently, there were three different departments with a similarly named room. So we wandered all over campus, that was frustrating. And I thought, I think that Jill Tarter knows about frustration much better than I do.

IRA FLATOW: Have you got a question for her?

JILL TARTER: Yes, I do. And Jill, in the next 10, 100, or 1,000 years, what do you think the chances are that we will detect extraterrestrial intelligence? And that’s my question.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

JILL TARTER: Well, I can’t do any calculation that will give you a probability that means anything. There is so much that is unknown in this field. But I do believe that, just as Craig Venter and David Cohen suggested, that whereas the 20th century had been the century of physics with all of these fantastic breakthroughs and achievements, the 21st century was going to be the century of biology. And of course, they were talking about genomics.

I think actually the 21st century is going to be the century of biology on Earth and beyond. I think there is a real opportunity in this coming century, what’s left of it, to discover life beyond Earth. Either by finding evidence of it on bodies within our own solar system, or by SETI succeeding, or actually by taking it, by bringing life off the planet.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Jill Tarter, author of her new biography Making Contact. Being at Cornell, home of Frank Drake, the Drake equation, and the chances of finding life, intelligent life out there in the cosmos. If scientists really believe and so many of them believe that there has to be life and intelligent life in the cosmos, it just makes sense to search for it, doesn’t it? I mean, if you believe it’s there to, look for it.

JILL TARTER: You got the wrong verb. Believe, that’s not the question. We need to explore and find out what is.

We’ve spent millennia asking the priests and the philosophers what we should believe about this question. Now scientists and engineers have some tools that will allow them to actually search and discover what is. So I really in every opportunity try to substitute the verb to explore for the verb to believe.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. You mentioned the funding problem, that’s always an ongoing problem. Right now, SETI is funded privately, correct?

JILL TARTER: It is. SETI has been funded since 1993 by private individuals with great vision. The most recent of these being Yuri Milner, who has pledged $100 million for a 10 year search. That money has gone to Berkeley to the Center for SETI Research there.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that if more scientists like yourself were more visible scientists, that you might get more attention to the ongoing problem all scientists have of funding?

JILL TARTER: Well, SETI actually is blessed by getting a great deal of attention. Especially when compared to the very low level of funding that we enjoy. People are interested in what we’re doing. There is almost no one who has no opinion about the question of life beyond Earth.

As opposed to the Higgs boson, this is an easy story to tell, it is one that people can react to. People really do want to understand how they fit in, and to find some way to calibrate their place. Are we on the top of the rung? Are we at the bottom? How do we fit into this cosmos?

So SETI is an easy story to tell. And I could barely stand any more attention, thank you. I’m on the road a great deal trying to get people excited about this project.

IRA FLATOW: I wish you great luck and future in your search. I’m not going to say belief, but in your search for intelligent life out there in the cosmos. Jill Tarter, astronomer former director of the Center for SETI Research. She’s the Oliver Chair there at SETI, and also author of Making Contact. Really interesting stuff.

JILL TARTER: Actually Ira, Sara Scoles is the author of the biography, and we should give her credit. She’s a young science writer, and I think she did a great job. I love her voice.

IRA FLATOW: I’m glad you corrected me on that. Sarah Scoles, author of Making Contact. And you’re the subject of the biography.

JILL TARTER: That’s true. Guilty as charged.

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