An Interview with SETI’s Jill Tarter

Jill Tarter is a SETI Institute Trustee and the inspiration for Jodi Foster’s character in the movie, “Contact.”

Jill Tarter is a SETI Institute Trustee and the inspiration for Jodi Foster’s character in the movie, “Contact.” While archaeologists look for mysteries in ancient history, SETI astronomers search out enigmas in the great beyond. Those like Jill Tarter nurture aspiring female engineers, even sending my young daughter a thank-you note for her $2.00 donation to SETI, along with a package filled with space-related materials to spark her curiosity.

Who is Jill Tarter?

My undergrad degree is in Engineering Physics and my PhD is in Astronomy, so when Prof. Stu Bowyer at UC Berkeley gave me a copy of the NASA Cyclops Report in 1974 as a way of recruiting me to work on his SETI project (because i knew how to program the obsolete PDP8/S computer he’d been given), I was really excited that i had the right tools and was in the right place to try to help answer humanity’s outstanding question: “Are we alone?”

After I finished my PhD, I did a postdoc at NASA Ames elaborating on my thesis on Brown Dwarfs, but I also volunteered with John Billingham’s nascent SETI program and kept on going with SETI when the postdoc completed. In 1984, I co-founded the non-profit SETI Institute and directed the SETI portion of it’s research until I retired in 2012 (please note that in spite of the name, the SETI Institute is one of the largest centers for Astrobiology anywhere).

How did Jill Tarter get interested in space?

My first interest was engineering, but by the time I finished a five-year program as the only female in a class of 300 and got my engineering degree, I decided I’d had enough.  I realized that I had extremely good problem solving skills as a result of my training; I just wanted to find more interesting problems to solve.  I spent a year taking all sorts of different classes and was fortunate enough to take a class from Edwin Salpeter on star formation and I instantly fell in love with astronomy.

How did Jill Tarter become the inspiration for the character played by Jodie Foster in “Contact”?

Carl Sagan was a colleague, and eventually a member of the Board of Trustees for the SETI Institute.  He wrote a book about a woman who does what I do, and of course since he was very familiar with the way we conducted our observations, the book is quite accurate up to the moment when a signal is detected.

It turns out that I am pretty prototypical of women my age who went into male-dominated STEM fields, including losing my dad (the center of my universe) at a young age.  So what Carl knew about me fit a lot of other female scientists, and what he knew about other female scientists was also a pretty good match for me.

Jill Tarter enjoys sparking an interest in science for girls. How do females represented in science now compared to when Jill Tarter when to school?

Absolutely – I’m eager to encourage more young girls to consider STEM careers, and i know it is essential to do that early, before their self-esteem starts to decline as adolescents.

When I got my PhD, women made up <10 percent of the field. Today it’s risen to something like 15-20 percent, but that’s still pretty low.  But with concerted efforts, that can change – we’ve seen it happen in other fields.  I entered Cornell Engineering as one of 300, but this year’s freshman engineering class at Cornell is 51 percent female!

It didn’t happen by accident.

Another thing that gives me encouragement is the field of exoplanet science.  this is a very young scientific discipline and women are fairly equally represented there. In fact IMHO, the best of the best are young females. If you look at the demographics of the participants in the various citizen science projects around the globe, women are there in significant numbers.  In 50 years, IF we’ve managed to fight back the anti-science environment that we see creeping into at least the US culture, I think there will be excellent diversity and representation of all kinds of minorities because we’ve got some wicked hard challenges ahead of us and we will not be able to waste any good ideas.

We are going to have to ‘science the sh*t’ out of climate change, water and food security, poverty, disease, intolerance and do so globally, if we are to have a long future. (can you print that in 10 questions?)

What is SETI and what benefits might we see if it received increased financial support?

SETI, the acronym, stands for the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, but that’s actually a misnomer.  We cannot define intelligence and we certainly don’t know how to detect it remotely.  So we use technology as our proxy for intelligence and use the tools of 21st century astronomy and engineering to try to find evidence of someone else’s technology: evidence that someone is modifying their environment in ways that we can sense remotely over the vast distances between the stars.

Although we’ve tried looking for other things, most SETI observations have concentrated on finding electromagnetic signals at radio, optical, or infrared frequencies.  Since we are looking for engineered signals rather than natural emissions, we’ve had to build our own detectors since the ones the astronomers use won’t work.  We are looking at the sky in different ways on different timescales and therefore it’s possible that we might uncover some astrophysics we didn’t expect – although that hasn’t happened yet.

As we begin to use neural networks and artificial intelligence to help us find more complex signals than we have been able to find in the past, it is quite possible that we will end up writing software that will be useful to other researchers looking for other types of signals hidden in noise.

SETI@home is still being run by UC Berkeley and people can donate their spare computer cycles or even their smart phones to that effort.

They can follow the SETI Institute observations in real-time at They can attend our monthly SETITalks or watch them on the SETI Institute’s YouTube channel. They can sign up for our electronic newsletter. They can visit the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, CA. And of course we’d be delighted if they decided to donate on our web site.

How does Jill Tarter deal with discouragement—especially after a promising discovery turns out not to be what was hoped for?

Everyone who works on SETI understands just how vast an undertaking this is.  Even if we are looking for the right thing, the number of different directions and frequencies to explore is pretty overwhelming.

This may well be a multi-generational endeavor so each of us derives satisfaction from figuring out some way that we can do our search better today than we did yesterday. We get hugely excited when we think we may have actually detected what we’ve been looking for, and then, a bit deflated from the adrenaline rush.

We go back to our tasks when it turns out to be a false positive (as it has thus far).

What did Jill Tarter think when she first read reports of “Tabby’s Star”?

This is indeed an unusual object.  There have been several recent rounds of observations and the conclusions are still inconclusive. Whatever is doing the absorbing has a frequency dependence like dust, but there is no infrared luminosity as you would expect from dust that is warmed near the star. And explanations that keep the dust cool and far from the star, in the interstellar medium, have a number of other problems.

Lacking an explanation, it is possible to postulate some new physics we haven’t yet encountered elsewhere, some unique alignment or preferred observational vantage point that obfuscates known physics, or astroengineering by ETIs.

That last is the explanation of last resort, but it is the one the public can readily understand and get interested in. people continue to want to believe in magic and science fiction.

Are there protocols for how to publicize an actual discovery? Will they be followed if/when the time comes?

Speaking for the SETI Institute, from the first days of the NASA SETI project we have had a post-detection protocol.  After termination of congressional funding, we removed the clauses that specified which members of the management team were designated to inform the Executive Branch and the Congressional Funding Committees, but have retained the parts that reflect the efforts of the IAA and IISL.

During our infrequent false positive events, we have attempted to follow these guidelines, but have experienced the difficulty of containing the information as we proceed.

Is Jill Tarter aware of any demographic groups, including religions, with special interest in SETI?

We’ve not made any study of the demographics of the individuals who are interested in our work. Those who have chosen to support us tend to be educated and interested in many different scientific topics.

What benefits can people find from taking a few minutes now and then to gaze up at the stars and ponder?

Allen Telescope Array in California at night. Photo provided by Jill Tarter.

A very dark sky in an isolated place can remind you of what the word ‘awesome’ really means. For me, as I continue to look up I become more and more comfortable with the notion that all life as we know it is intimately connected to those far away places and long ago times that my eyes are in the process of exploring.

It truly takes a cosmos to make a human.

Does Jill Tarter think intelligent alien life will be found in her lifetime?

I do not know when or if life beyond earth will be found.  For me, the proper way to address this question is summarized in the last sentence of the 1959 Cocconi and Morrison paper: “The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.”

Further reading

Jill Tarter resources

Jill Tarter quotes

Ultimately, we actually all belong to only one tribe, to Earthlings.

TED Radio Hour: Are We Alone in the Universe?

If we detect a signal, even if there’s no information — even if it’s just a cosmic dial tone — we learn that it’s possible for us to have a future — a long future.

Jill Tarter: A Scientist Searching For Alien Life

We get hugely excited when we think we may have actually detected what we’ve been looking for, and then, a bit deflated from the adrenaline rush.

An Interview with SETI’s Jill Tarter

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “An Interview with SETI’s Jill Tarter”

The chance for success is not zero if we don’t search. As long as we have eyes and a brain we have the possibility of discovering them.

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