Women in science: jill tarter, seti, and our search for extraterrestrial life

July 5, 2017, Mountain View, CA — Jill Tarter is the subject of a new book by Sarah Scoles, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which was released yesterday. Jill is a pioneer in SETI research and currently holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair at the SETI Institute. Making Contact is not just for scientists and SETI enthusiasts, but truly is the story of Jill’s life and her life’s work.

Women in Science: Jill Tarter, SETI, and Our Search for Extraterrestrial Life

“This is one woman's view of the roller coaster history of SETI explorations,” said Jill. “Sarah has told it with a fresh voice that makes me grin.”

In Making Contact, Scoles examines the science behind the work that tries to answer the question, “Are we alone?” Jill was the inspiration for the character of Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s Contact, a role played by Jodie Foster in the film, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. Scoles tells Jill’s story, and also begins to wonder how a new generation of SETI research will look.

“A fictional story about SETI, partly inspired by Tarter, has spurred so many people's interests in astronomy and life in the universe,” said Scoles. “I hope the nonfictional tale of the actual search and the actual Tarter can do something similar.”

Scoles suggests that without Jill, SETI programs, including the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) and Breakthrough Listen might not exist.

Additionally, funding for SETI research has always been a challenge to obtain. Indeed, the SETI Institute’s own SETI program is funded entirely through private donations and receives no government support.

Jill’s ongoing efforts continue to make groundbreaking SETI research possible.

“Jill is not only a SETI pioneer, and world-class astronomer, her life and work have served as inspiration for an entire new generation of women in science, including many here at the SETI Institute” said Institute CEO, Bill Diamond.

  “Her toughness, tenacity and perseverance in a male-dominated field of enquiry are fully explored in this captivating biography of a scientist possessed by what is perhaps humankind’s greatest quest – answering that singular question – Are we alone?”

Jill and Sarah will appear together on July 12 at the Cubberley Community Center in Mountain View, CA to discuss the book and new directions in SETI research. The presentation is part of the SETI Institute’s SETI Talks series and will also feature SETI Institute scientists Eliot Gillum and Seth Shostak. Tickets are available here.

Meet the Woman Who Pioneered Our Search for Aliens

I've known of Jill Tarter since my earliest university classes. The real-life radio astronomer who served as inspiration for Jodie Foster's character, Ellie Arroway, in the 1997 film Contact, Tarter is the public face of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Interviewing her requires carefully concealing fangirlish squeals from the physics student I used to be; in certain circles, she is an icon.

As part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Tarter was one of the first scientists to embark on an ongoing, methodical search for extraterrestrial intelligence, using an enormous telescope array to scan the skies for alien signals.

“I am the chief cheerleader for SETI and the Allen Telescope Array,” Tarter tells me over the phone, introducing herself with practiced flair. Her voice is earthy.

She's careful when she speaks, drawing out the spaces between words, and her descriptions are a mix of metaphor and jargon, technically precise while still accessible. The overall impact is grounded and reassuring.

It's easy to understand why she's such an effective advocate for the SETI Institute; her solid presence—and impressive academic background—counters ridicule about the search for “little green men.”

Read more: Talking to a Leading UFO Researcher About Alien Megastructures

Tarter was an only child, taking after both her parents. “All of the pictures that we have of me as a young child are just full of fish and fancy dresses together,” Tarter says. “I would be in this white, starched, ironed pinafore dress with little white socks, Mary Janes, and ribbons in my hair and holding this great big fish that I had caught with my father.”

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When she was eight years old, her father tried to push her to stop mixing rugged outdoors hobbies and fashion.

Perched on the washing machine to be at eye level, she remembers bursting out, “What do you mean, I have to choose?” She wore him down with a mix of protests and (“highly manipulative”) tears.

Tarter fondly recalls her father conceding, “If you're willing to work very hard, there's no reason you can't do anything you decide you want to do.” Taking him up on the challenge, she replied, “I want to be an engineer.”

Women in Science: Jill Tarter, SETI, and Our Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Photo courtesy of Jill Tarter

Women in Science: Jill Tarter, SETI, and Our Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Last week marked the release of Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence a book that explores the life of Dr. Jill Tarter including her experiences as a female engineer and astronomer in the 1960s as well as her efforts to drive the science and the technology (and the funding) for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (better known as SETI) toward the ultimate discovery – an intelligent civilization beyond our own.

I was lucky enough to get to chat with the author and science writer Sarah Scoles, whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discover, New Scientist, Wired, and the Washington Post, among others. Sarah, thank you for being here!

First, I have to boast that I’ve known Sarah for what I think is 10 years now. Our friendship got its start in the jungles of Puerto Rico at the Arecibo Observatory, the same spot where NASA’s first major SETI effort, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, began in 1992. Congress canceled that survey a year later but luckily they couldn’t put a stop to us.

We also met up more recently in West Virginia when I was running experiments at the 140-foot Green Bank Telescope where Sarah worked, a telescope which she describes in her book as “naval on the outside and steampunk on the inside”.

Since astronomers are often short on funds, she let me stay with her at her farmhouse which just happened to be the “former bachelor pad” (as she calls it) of Frank Drake.

Drake took the first step for modern SETI efforts by pointing a radio telescope at two stars similar to our Sun in 1960, an experiment known as Project Ozma.

He is also well known for being the creator of the Drake Equation, an idea that is not so much a precise equation but an effort to break down into parts the odds us Earthlings would have to overcome in order to detect an extraterrestrial message.

So let’s talk about Making Contact …

EE: What do you find most inspiring about Jill Tarter? Of all the people you could have chosen to write about, what made you choose her?


Jill Tarter

Jill TarterJill Tarter at Starmus IV Trondheim 2017, photograph by Max Alexander/Starmus.BornJill Cornell (1944-01-16) January 16, 1944 (age 76)NationalityUnited StatesEducationB.E.P., Cornell University, 1965M.A., University of California at Berkeley, 1971Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley, 1975Known forSETI researchSpouse(s)C. Bruce TarterJack WelchChildrenShana TarterScientific careerFieldsRadio astronomyThesisThe Interaction of Gas and Galaxies within Galaxy Clusters (1975)Doctoral advisorJoseph SilkInfluencesRichard FeynmanGrace HopperMargaret BurbidgeInfluencedNatalie BatalhaDebra FischerMargaret Turnbull

Jill Cornell Tarter (born January 16, 1944) is an American astronomer best known for her work on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Tarter is the former director of the Center for SETI Research, holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute.[1][2][3]
In 2002, Discover magazine recognized her as one of the 50 most important women in science.[4]

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Early life and education

Tarter grew up in New York State, and graduated from Eastchester High School in 1961 (and was elected to its alumni association's hall of fame in 2001).

[5] Prior to his death when she was twelve years old, Tarter's father was an early inspiration by encouraging her curiosity when she resisted suggestions that she follow pursuits considered more appropriate for a girl and announced that she wanted to be an engineer.

On family trips to Florida she with her father would look up at the dark skies and wonder who or what might be out there.[6][7]

Tarter earned a Bachelor of Engineering Physics degree as an undergraduate at Cornell University and as the only woman in the engineering program.

Her professional interest in astronomy emerged as she pursued a Master's degree and PhD at the University of California at Berkeley.

[6][7][8] It was in her PhD thesis where she coined the term “brown dwarf” while researching small-mass objects that fail to stably fuse hydrogen.[9]

Astronomy career

“Life Beyond Earth” CSICon 2016

Tarter has worked on a number of major scientific projects, most relating to the search for extraterrestrial life. As a graduate student, she was inspired to do SETI research by the Cyclops Report. Stuart Bowyer gave her the report to read when Bowyer discovered that Tarter could program the then-outdated PDP-8/S computer that had been donated by Jack Welch for Bowyer's SETI project at Hat Creek Radio Observatory. She worked with Bowyer on the radio-search project SERENDIP and created the corresponding backronym, “Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations”.[6] She was project scientist for NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) in 1992 and 1993 and subsequently director of Project Phoenix (HRMS reconfigured) under the auspices of the SETI Institute. She was co-creator with Margaret Turnbull of the HabCat in 2002, a principal component of Project Phoenix. Tarter has published dozens of technical papers and lectures extensively both on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the need for proper science education. She had spent 35 years in the quest for extraterrestrial life when she announced her retirement in 2012.[10][3][2]

On October 20, 2006, Tarter appeared on the Point of Inquiry podcast to discuss the question: “Are we alone?” Tarter stated, “Humans will have a different view about being human if and when we know the answer to the 'Are we alone?' question.”[11]

In 2011, Tarter delivered a talk, “Intelligent Life in the Universe: Is Anybody Out There?”, at the first Starmus Festival in the Canary Islands. The Festival, founded by astronomer Garik Israelian, was a blend of astronomy, allied sciences, music, and art.

Tarter subsequently joined the Starmus Board of Directors, along with Israelian, astrophysicist and Queen founding guitarist Brian May, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and others. Her 2011 talk was published in the book Starmus: 50 Years of Man in Space.

[12] Tarter is a member of the CuriosityStream Advisory Board.[13]

In May 2013, the Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2013 was introduced into Congress. Tarter was listed by one commentator as a possible nominee for the position of Science Laureate, if the act were to pass.[14]

In 2017, science journalist Sarah Scoles published a biography of Tarter and a history of SETI, called Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.[15]

Honors and awards

Tarter's work in astrobiology and her success as a female scientist have garnered achievement awards from several scientific organizations.

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  • Awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by Women in Aerospace in 1989.[1]
  • Elected a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in 1994.[16]
  • Chabot Observatory named her their person of the year in 1997.[1]
  • Was awarded the Telluride Tech Festival Award of Technology in 2001.[17]
  • Was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002 and a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences in 2003.
  • Received the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award in 2003.[18]
  • Was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2004.[19]
  • Received two public service medals from NASA.[20]
  • Asteroid 74824 Tarter (1999 TJ16) was named and approved by the International Astronomical Union’s Small Bodies Naming Committee in 2005.[1]
  • Received Wonderfest's Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization in 2005.[21]
  • Recipient of a 2009 TED Prize.[22][23]

Popular culture

Tarter's astronomical work is illustrated in Carl Sagan's novel Contact. In the film version of Contact, the protagonist Ellie Arroway is played by Jodie Foster.

Tarter conversed with the actress for months before and during filming, and Arroway was “largely based” on Tarter's work.

[24] She has also been featured in John Boswell's Symphony of Science music video, “The Poetry of Reality (An Anthem for Science)”.[25]

Scientists Detail the Next Era in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life | American Association for the Advancement of Science

Siemion announced for the first time a brand-new collaboration between SETI and the Karl G.

Jansky Very Large Array, a network of radio telescopes in New Mexico that is one of the world’s premier astronomical observatories.

The observatory has never hosted a search program from SETI before, but Siemion said that recent advances in technology will allow SETI to begin conducting searches there.

The collaboration “will allow a comprehensive search of the northern sky, and will allow for targeted observations of nearby stars,” he said in a previous interview.

Siemion also described new results from a paper examining the Earth Transit Zone – a narrow band in the sky of major interest to astronomers. In the same way that astronomers detect exoplanets by studying how they transit across their stars, the Earth Transit Zone is a region in the sky where civilizations may be able to detect the existence of Earth, according to a 2016 study.

Although the Earth Transit Zone has long piqued the interest of those seeking intelligent life, the new paper is one of the first actual surveys of the zone, according to Siemion. In the new study, graduate student Sofia Sheikh examined 20 stars inside the Earth Transit Zone, which ranged from 23 to 457 light years away from the solar system.

Siemion also detailed the second major release of data from Breakthrough Listen, which represents the largest ever data release in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The data include radio and optical telescope measurements of 100 nearby stars as well as 1,500 locations within the galactic plane.

The data release also represents a major accomplishment in collaborative research and open-source science, he said. As with the first major release in 2019, all of the data will be available in an online archive for other researchers to parse through and examine.

Victoria Suzanne Meadows, a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle  described her recent work in modeling how the James Webb Space Telescope – slated to launch in March 2021 – may be able to detect chemical signatures associated with life forms on other worlds. Meadows and her team have been using sophisticated climate models to understand how the activities of life forms might affect the atmospheres of exoplanets.

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