Jill Tarter: Searching for E.T.

What must it be like to devote your life to answering a single simple but monumental question: Are we alone? Astronomer Jill Tarter would know better than most what it’s like, and knows that the answer will remain firmly stuck on “Yes” until she and others in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project (SETI) prove it otherwise. But the path she chose to get there was an unconventional as it was difficult, and holds lessons in the power of keeping you head down and plowing ahead, no matter what.

Endless Hurdles

To get to the point where she could begin to answer the fundamental question of the uniqueness of life, Jill had to pass a gauntlet of obstacles that by now are familiar features of the biography of many women in science and engineering. Born in 1944, Jill Cornell grew up in that postwar period of hope and optimism in the USA where anything seemed possible as long as one stayed within established boundaries. Girls were expected to do girl things, and boys did boy things. Thus, Jill, an only child whose father did traditional boy things like hunting and fixing things with her, found it completely natural to sign up for shop class when she reached high school age. She was surprised and disappointed to be turned down and told to enroll in “Home Economics” class like the other girls.

Doing “boy things” with Dad. Source: SETI Institute

She eventually made it to shop class, but faced similar obstacles when she wanted to take physics and calculus classes. Her guidance counselor couldn’t figure why a girl would need to take such classes, but Jill persisted and excelled enough to get accepted to Cornell, the university founded by her distant relation, Ezra Cornell. Jill applied for a scholarship available to Cornell family members; she was turned down because it was intended for male relatives only.

Undeterred, Jill applied for and won a scholarship from Procter & Gamble for engineering, and entered the engineering program as the only woman in a class of 300. Jill used her unique position to her advantage; knowing that she couldn’t blend into the crowd like her male colleagues, she made sure her professors always knew who she was. Even still, Jill faced problems. Cornell was very protective of their students in those days, or at least the women; they were locked in their dorms at 10:00 each night. This stifled her ability to work on projects with the male students and caused teamwork problems later in her career.

No Skill is Obsolete

Despite these obstacles, Jill, by then married to physics student Bruce Tarter, finished her degree. But engineering had begun to bore her, so she changed fields to astrophysics for her post-graduate work and moved across the country to Berkeley. The early 70s were hugely inspirational times for anyone with an eye to the heavens, with the successes of the US space program and leaps in the technology available for studies the universe. In this environment, Jill figured she’d be a natural for the astronaut corps, but was denied due to her recent divorce.

Disappointed, Jill was about to start a research job at NASA when X-ray astronomer Stu Boyer asked her to join a ragtag team assembled to search for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Lacking a budget, Boyer had scrounged an obsolete PDP-8 from Berkeley and knew that Jill was the only person who still knew how to program the machine. Jill’s natural tendency to fix and build things began to pay dividends, and she would work on nothing but SETI for the rest of her career.

From the Bureaucratic Ashes

At Arecibo. Source: KQED Science

SETI efforts have been generally poorly funded over the years. Early projects were looked at derisively by some scientists as science fiction nonsense, and bureaucrats holding the purse strings rarely passed up an opportunity to score points with constituents by ridiculing efforts to talk to “little green men.” Jill was in the thick of the battles for funding, and SETI managed to survive. In 1984, Jill was one of the founding members of the SETI Institute, a private corporation created to continue SETI research for NASA as economically as possible.

The SETI Institute kept searching the skies for the next decade, developing bigger and better technology to analyze data from thousands of frequencies at a time from radio telescopes around the world. But in 1993, the bureaucrats finally landed the fatal blow and removed SETI funding from NASA’s budget, saving taxpayers a paltry $10 million. Jill and the other scientists kept going, and within a year, the SETI Institute had raised millions in private funds, mostly from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, to continue their work.

Part of the Allen Telescope Array. Source: SETI Institute

The Institute’s Project Phoenix, of which Jill was Director until 1999, kept searching for signs of life out there until 2004, with no results. They proposed an ambitious project to improve the odds — an array of 350 radio telescopes dedicated to SETI work. Dubbed the Allen Telescope Array after its primary patron, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the array has sadly never been completed. But the first 42 of the 6-meter dishes have been built, and the ATA continues to run SETI experiments every day.

Jill Tarter retired as Director of SETI Research for the Institute in 2012, but remains active in the SETI field. Her primary focus now is fundraising, leveraging not only her years of contacts in the SETI community but also some of the star power she earned when it became known that she was the inspiration for the Ellie Arroway character in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, played by Jodie Foster in the subsequent Hollywood film.

Without a reasonable SETI program, the answer to “Are we alone?” will probably never be known. But if it is answered, it’ll be thanks in no small part to Jill Tarter and her stubborn refusal to stay within the bounds that were set for her.

38 thoughts on “Jill Tarter: Searching for E.T.

    1. How do you go from one known example and billions of stars checked, to most likely there are more? Yes, it certainly does seem that it should be likely, and if anyone finds a gold nugget they naturally search for more. But what if they ARE the nugget?

  1. I think it is impossibly high odds that we will receive any indicator of other intelligent life.
    1. As said above they are most likely too far away.
    2. Chances for first life much less evolving to the point to send a signal is extremely unlikely.
    3. As you see in sci-fi scenarios if you do evolve to the point of high enough technology, they may destroy themselves.
    4. The civilization may have come and gone by natural means before we came along to hear them.

    I think it is hopeful and wishful thinking we will make an connection. But it makes for great movies, but usually it never works out well for us so why do we keep signalling to find us and conquer us? :)

    1. And current earth situation gives a clear example: our radio tech is a little above one century, but we will lose it in a couple of century or so due to material exhaustion/massive extinction/massive war etc…
      That gives 2 to 3 century of possible detection for a 30 century historical period, not even talking about homo sapiens period in itself.

      So you have to look at a lot of place, for a very long time to improve the odds.

  2. Love the movie Contact. Would love to watch it with my kids if I can some how remove the scene with Jodie Foster’s breasts.

    I think vast distance between solar systems is what preventing us from reaching others (or protecting us from alien invasion). I do believe that no one can travel at a speed even close to speed of Light. So having to spend a lifetime to reach a remote planet just to say “Hi!” does not make any chance.

    1. One of the movie’s defining features is a religious fanatic who turns into a suicide bomber who deliberately destroys lifetimes worth of work and kills many people, and the thing that singularly offends you is a brief bit of sideboob?

      Man, what a screwed up society this is.

      Read the book then. Much better than that bad movie adaptation. Better for your kids, too.

  3. May find classified alien operations smuggling in space… though more the DHS definition of illegal alien or alien classified operations.

    With globalization and lack of ownership in the America’s I’m beginning to wonder why the DOD, DOJ and DHS systems are such failures and dishes are still used (I guess other than way far out in space CIA/DEA alien et.al. smuggling). Like the DEA con artists in DOJ, et.al. came up with the whole fiasco of criminal statistics and criminal manufacturing ops with other different operations that are delusional.

    More reason for a parabolic trough border operation that can integrate desalination operations, power generations, border security/patrol and radar.

      1. Get’s deep. Pun intended on submarines too. Basically, figure policing or patrolling environments for certain people groups and socio-economic classes and the acts and events they get into validly observing and trying not to disturb the peaceful minded or at least those that prefer life and the truth for more times of peace… or even survival not too primitively really.

        1. Huh?

          Sorry, I’d love to understand what you’re talking about, but I can’t get hold of it so far. As my major professor and mentor used to say, “I’m not quite grasping the sharp edge of your thought.” The 52-word run-on sentence didn’t help. Could you elaborate? Please use shorer sentences and words of few syllables. Thanks.

  4. Either their is life out there and we’re supposed to get our there and join the party, or we’re supposed to get out there and spread life across the entire expanse ourselves. It’s really clear the mission is not to just sit here and let ourselves blink out after some millennia.

    1. I think we are supposed to grow. Survival is the name of the game. Life is time and resources. Resources are mass and energy. Mass and energy likes to conjugate, bond and form new along with break down and really form cycles.

      The net effect of the cycles seems to be domestication of life for larger populations challenges for survival of the more domesticated life forms and predators going extinct. Otherwise we can’t develop more memory associations that are more complex and advance domesticated systems with the primate predators preying on us distracting our advancement of memory associations and mastering the raw materials mass and energy forms we have to process into intermediates and finished products for survival and strangely albeit different with our time… luxury if in a safe healthy general welfare and well being environment.

      I think mining and more critically adding mass to Mars or changing the mass and energy on Venus to develop the ecosystem is more logical for the longer term and that is more reasonable to plan out for starters.

      So, depending on your school of thought or the actual facts (I’m not sure) where either we (Earth) move away from the Sun… then we want to develop Venus or practice for now on Mars… or if we are moving towards the Sun then we want to develop Mars and maybe longer term deal with way high temperature environment survival and ecosystem development of which there are volcanic areas, thermal vents and the poles to practice feasibility studies on here on Earth.

      That is if the PhD’s are being serious, and not desperate for grants/funds like some religion’s, compelling donors to fund their gross frauds and cheats operation(s).

  5. As has already been pointed out in the past, SETI is a dud if they can’t set up a link to a signal source and have it pass a simple Turing test and the chances of them being able to do that are so low they are effectively zero. So far they have not even found a signal and all they have done is damage the environment due to the energy consumption required for decades of fruitless computations. Not as bad as bitcoin, but still in the same league.

    1. Set up a link that can pass a Turing test to where? If no signals have been found how can they test anything? I can’t find any papers about this on Google.

      While we haven’t detected any signals that are verified as alien, is SETI really a waste, what about signals that SETI finds that turn out to be legit for astronomers, and what about the WOW signal, I would think that after all the research done on it, it would open naysayers minds a bit more.

      1. Yes clearly you have no idea what I am talking about, yet you lecture me? LOL please spare me the “fan-boy” stuff. It is not complicated. The number of signals is currently 0, but if it became 1 and it was more than a few light decades away it would be impractical to set up a two way interaction and without that you can’t prove it is intelligent. Just because something is complicated it does not mean it is intelligent, this is why a Turning type test is required. Furthermore even if it was closer the interaction could be prevented on security grounds, even Stephen Hawking says that we should not respond. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/stephen-hawking-warns-that-humanity-should-not-respond-to-aliens-in-case-they-kill-us-all-a7326256.html SETI is a waste of energy.

        1. First off no need for the smug LOL attitude, it’s obvious If I had to ask I didn’t know exactly what your talking about.

          Second I never said that I think if we had the technology we should just jump out and respond. I have huge reservation s about AI and the intent of advanced life. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore the possibility though. It all comes down to what to do with the research. On a personal note, I think at this point with the way things are going ecologically and the hard deadlines on green house gasses we don’t have much to lose.

          Lastly I think your tiring test point is invalid. If we received a complex signal let’s just say in QAM16 and verified it’s origin could only be from another solar system, I think at this point it’s pretty clear it alien. If it somehow is not just add it to one of the many signals SETI contributes to the scientific research community that may otherwise remain unseen by radio astronomers. If SETI never finds alien signal I think it’s records of frbs and other things made the program as valuable as any astronomy related sky scan.. don’t you?

          1. Heh, John Michael Godier explains another aspect of it very well see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBf7uAxk6ds

            As for your rejection of my test point, LOL (and yeah I do have a right to be smug) your stance is valid but only if you rely on belief rather than logic. Any complex signal stream can be generated by a simple mechanism iterating a rewrite system, this is a mathematical reality that you can’t deny, once you actually understand the subject. This is the mathematics that is the foundation of all information technology! There is no way of proving that any pattern is the product of intelligence without a two way interaction. This is undeniable, unless you want to turn SETI into a religious cult.

          2. Obviously you can’t tell whether, say, a manuscript of Hamlet is the product of an intelligent being, or just randomly generated by some sort of natural staining of naturally-occurring flat surfaces. That’s because no matter how much you talk to Shakespeare’s corpse, he never says anything.

            That’s the Turing test. You can’t argue with Science.

          3. >> That’s the Turing test. You can’t argue with Science.

            Mebbe so, but what you just said is most definitely not science. Granted, you can’t prove with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY that Hamlet didn’t just pop out of nowhere. But you dang well _CAN_ declare that it’s well outside, say, six sigma probability. _THAT’S_ Science.

    2. How do you “set up a link” if there’s never been a first verified signa??? Links require at least two participants.

      Likewise, the Turing test requires a conversation, meaning more than a few exchanges. Tough to have a conversation when the parties are, say, 1000 light-years apart. Or even 4, the lowest possible number.

  6. “Astronomer Jill Tarter would know better than most what it’s like, and knows that the answer will remain firmly stuck on “Yes” until she and others in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project (SETI) prove it otherwise.”

    Why particularly should the answer be “Yes” until proven otherwise? This is not either rational or scientific, nor is it how one would skeptically approach any of the mundane questions one stumbles across on a day to day basis. It is an assumption. Never assume(if you can help it). And if there is any doubt: then there isn’t any doubt. It is what keeps us from wandering off the reservation.
    Just saying, nobody here would troubleshoot some chunk of machinery with an assumed “Yes”. Is it, therefore, good policy to work off an assumption when examining the universe at large? Dunno, it ‘ud be bad engineering, I reckon it ‘ud be bad sciencing.

    1. Standard Scientific process.

      Make assumptions, form an hypothesis, then develop tests to prove or disprove. “If they do exist we may be able to detect them by…”

      Can’t prove a thing exists if you start with the assumption it doesn’t.

      Engineers work the same way. You want to measure airflow? Must first assume you can, and then test various ideas as to how.

      1. As Feynman said, prejudice yourself against your proposition and work as hard as you can to prove you are wrong, despite your bias in favor of your brilliance.

        However, to apply this to SETI is to enter into paradox. You can not prove you are wrong until you check every star and planet in the universe, and all the space in between. And you can not prove that you have checked them all! It is like proposing that one of the grains of sand in the oceans is made of element 127 because you made one atom in an accelerator. How do you prove the proposition is false?

  7. Forget SETI. What about the more basic question: Is there life Out There?

    Time was, we thought that there was no interaction between planets, even here in our Solar System. Now we know that there’s plenty of interchange: meteorites from both Mars and the Moon, and possibly farther. Just the other day, I saw that “they” found a meteorite from outside the Solar System entirely, so old that it was formed before the Solar System even existed.

    Will we ever find life, say on Mars? Probably. Ditto for, say, Europa.

    Will we find INTELLIGENT life? Ah, that’s another matter. In 2000, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee published their book, “Rare Earth.” Their premise was that microscopic life is probably almost ubiquitous throughout the Universe; more complex life, extremely unlikely. The general idea is that so many unlikely things had to happen to make Earth the planet that it is.

    What unlikely things? For starters, the fact that the Earth was hit by a planet-busting collision that created our Moon. Surely THAT’s got to be rare.

    1. Consider also how the environments that can spawn Earth type life are fudged. Grant seekers are fond of showing they have found life in hot vents, or deep underground, or in hash chemical environments. They use this to encourage building probes to various moons and planets. But these are environments that we know life can ADAPT to, not originate in. For all we know, the origin chemistry and temperature is very specific. And here at least, it requires a second generation star with loads of supernova remnants to even meet the base materials list. Then there is a strong magnetic field and a quiet sun, and …… keep going and you get the Drake Equation, which is meaningless.

      1. Yeah, I recall over the years less references to Melvin Calvin in regards to the molecular soup origin of life. Even a Google search is far more vague than I recall while attending Tech. Where he and many others pioneered work in identifying and qualitatively as well as quantitatively (harder to find references) the molecular reaction cycles to form life from precursor molecules and even elements really.

        To me, he really is one of the scientists that didn’t get to far off into the Cosmos and outside of our human nutrient and nutrient range requirements for living systems that are required for our survival in a reasonable time frame for our and rational future human life cycles range of as we can envision mass and energy with the systems we have presently.

        Some of the science research seems like certain aspects of politics, entertainment and business… mentally ill (delusional, tangential to reality or survival for longer term and larger populations and grandiose).

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