I recently had the privilege to interview Jill Tarter. She is a SETI Institute Trustee and the inspiration for Jodi Foster’s character in the movie, “Contact.”
On a personal note, I was introduced to Jill via John Gertz, former SETI Chairman and President and CEO of Zorro Productions. She engaged in a correspondence with my daughter, sending a handcrafted note thanking her for a $2.00 donation to the SETI Institute and including a bevy of space-related materials to encourage her interest in science. Her scientific brilliance and personal warmth combine to make her a woman worth hearing from.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work with SETI?
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).
Kurt Manwaring: How did you first get interested in space?
Jill Tarter: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: You are one of the few scientists who break into popular discussion—and yet many people don’t realize who you are when they talk about you. Could you tell us how you came to be the inspiration for the character played by Jodie Foster in “Contact”?
Jill Tarter: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: You are genuinely interested in lighting a fire underneath children interested in science—especially young girls. How are females represented in astronomy today compared to when you began your career? How do you envision women in science 50 years from now?
Jill Tarter: 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“?)
Kurt Manwaring: What is SETI and what benefits might we see if it received increased financial support—including serendipitous applicable that reach beyond SETI and into our day-to-day lives? How can people get involved and contribute—financially or otherwise?
Jill Tarter: 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 setiquest.info.
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.
Kurt Manwaring: How do you deal with discouragement—especially after a promising discovery turns out not to be what was hoped for?
Jill Tarter: 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).
Kurt Manwaring: “Tabby’s Star” made news in 2017 and reinvigorated discussions about extra-terrestrial civilizations. What were your first thoughts when you read the initial research? Why do you think potential discoveries continue to excite discussion even though people recognize the odds are against significant discovery?
Jill Tarter: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: Are there protocols for how to publicize an actual discovery? Do you think they will actually be followed if/when the time comes?
Jill Tarter: 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 (see https://www.seti.org/post-detection.html).
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.
Kurt Manwaring: Mormons are among those interested in discoveries throughout the universe. In your work, have you identified any groups of people who seems to be especially interested in the work of SETI (e.g., academics, laymen, religious believers, television fans, etc.)?
Jill Tarter: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: You have talked about how you sometimes go to the Allen Telescope Array even though computers do all of the math these days. What kinds of benefits can people find from taking a few minutes now and then to gaze up at the stars and ponder?
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.
Kurt Manwaring: Do you think we will find alien life in your lifetime? In your most idealistic fantasy, how does the scenario play out?
Jill Tarter: 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.”