In 1543, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus shook Western civilization to its very core when he announced that the Earth was not at the center of the universe. The way in which we viewed ourselves and the world we live in was radically and forever altered.
Even so, the task that Copernicus began continues today. And one of the most brilliant stars in this galactic educational process is astronomer Jill Tarter.
Tarter has devoted most of her life to something no less mind-bending than the search for other intelligent civilizations in the universe. Though her vision reaches far into the depths of the universe, Tarter is a refreshingly down-to-earth person. I met her on a Friday evening in her ramshackle Berkeley Hills home, which she shares with her husband, UC Berkeley astronomer Jack Welch, and which was cheerfully decorated for Christmas, though it was months past the holiday. Besides putting in long hours as an astronomer, Tarter is also a small craft pilot and a salsa dancer. She admits to having been a drum majorette in high school–because it was the only “sport” at which girls could compete–and still today I could easily picture her twirling a baton, leading a marching band. An extraordinarily youthful 57, Tarter has short blond hair, expressive hands, and boundless passion for her quest.
Last June, Tarter traveled to Vienna to address the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Tarter had one message to convey to that group: for the first time in the history of our civilization, we have the means to detect alien technologies, and it might not be a bad idea to figure out how we’re going to react when we do find something out there.This is an especially thorny issue for Tarter because she might be the one doing the reacting. A founder of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, Tarter is director of the institute’s largest program, Project Phoenix, which uses radio telescopes to examine the vicinities of nearby, sun-like stars, listening for artificially produced signals.
Convincing a United Nations committee that there is a strong possibility we aren’t alone in the universe wasn’t especially difficult. Anyone who thinks logically about the question would have to conclude that we can’t be the only thinking civilization out there. As Greek philosopher Metrodorus wrote in the 4th century BC: “To consider Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field of millet, only one grain will grow.” The majority of modern scientists agree with Metrodorus.
Fewer and fewer people argue with Tarter that contact is possible, even imminent. But getting anyone to address the question of how we want to respond as one civilization in a universal community is more difficult.
“I can’t speak for the planet,” Tarter says, “and I don’t choose to. There is no global governance–the United Nations is the closest we get to it, and that’s a terribly flawed model. Nevertheless, it’s what we’ve got, so I went and told these good folks on the committee that we’re building a new telescope, one that will have a much better chance of receiving a signal. Tomorrow, they could wake up and be faced with the reality of contact with another civilization.”Tarter is a natural diplomat, a scientist who understands her work’s cultural ramifications –which are quite literally astronomical–and is capable of communicating them. Her hope is to get the committee to start addressing the questions that are not within her skill set or knowledge. If we receive an alien signal, should we reply? If so, what should we say on behalf of Earth?”If we were ever to be successful,” Tarter says, “the intelligence that we would have made contact with would be so different from humans that its existence would trivialize the differences among humans that we find so difficult. Those differences would be pallid in comparison to the human/alien differences. Contact with alien intelligence might help us to have a global civilization with a more tolerant approach to humanity.”
The committee does not share Tarter’s breadth of vision. “This committee has been around for 37 years,” Tarter tells me, “and they’re still arguing about where space begins. It is a political body par excellence.”
Tarter says they responded to her “with great politeness. They put some very nice words in their minutes. They agreed to my request that the documents I presented would be put on file in the Office of Outer Space Affairs for future use, should they ever wish to consult them.”
Even optimistic Tarter admits that probably not much will be done. “The only way to describe the pace of this group is glacial. I’ll go back in a couple of years and say, ‘Hey, remember me? Here’s something new that’s come up. Here’s another reason to think about this. Have you done anything?'”
Tarter, whose vision reaches light years beyond most of ours, is not discouraged. Her earliest childhood memories are about refusing to accept limitations. Born an only child in Eastchester, New York in 1944, she says she grew up as her professional football-player father’s son. “I went hunting and fishing with my dad every weekend, very much a tomboy, and then during the week, my mom was supposed to civilize me. She had a hard time.”
Tarter’s beloved father died when she was twelve years old, but she remembers very well an important conversation she had with him when she was only eight. He sat the young Jill down in the kitchen and told her, “You know, you’re really getting to be older, and you need to spend more time with your mom and do feminine things.”
In tears, the little girl asked, “Why do I have to do one thing or the other? Why can’t I do both?”
Her father told her that there really wasn’t a reason she couldn’t do whatever she wanted to do as long as she was willing to work hard enough. “What do you want to do?” he asked.
Without hesitation, she replied, “I want to be an engineer.”
She admits now that she had no idea what engineers did, but that she chose this career because it was something only men did. “So,” she concludes, “I got an engineering degree.”Tarter was the only woman out of 300 students in the freshman engineering class at Cornell University. She says the experience was “character-building” and describes an incident during the first week of classes. She was sitting in a large lecture hall, listening to a professor, when she noticed a tittering that began behind her and then moved up the tiers of the lecture hall. As the laughter reached a crescendo, the professor stopped his lecture to ask what was going on.”Somebody finally had the nerve to stand up and point out my cardigan sweater, which I had draped over the back of my chair, revealing the label,” Tarter says. “My mother was a fabulous housekeeper and a really attentive mom, so she had sent me off to college with little name tags sewn in all my clothing. Well, she’d sewn ‘Jill Cornell,’ my maiden name, over the sweater’s label that said ‘100 percent virgin wool’ so that it read ‘100 percent virgin Jill Cornell.'” Tarter decided she could make it through anything after that day.
As it turned out, engineering didn’t interest Tarter all that much. She hated the way that you didn’t get any brownie points for innovative solutions to problems. “In engineering it was much better to use an already understood solution to solve a new problem. That was more cost-effective. But it didn’t suit me. I told myself: If engineers are as boring as my professors, I have to do something else.” And Tarter wasn’t willing to wait around; from her father’s early death, she learned that there isn’t always a tomorrow, that opportunities must be seized. “I learned that very quickly, in a very hard way.” She began looking for “more interesting problems,” and in 1967, came upon a course in star formation. Tarter moved to Berkeley and enrolled in the PhD astrophysics program.
Then, “a marvelously fortunate accident” led Tarter to SETI. Stuart Bowyer, an X-ray astronomer at UC Berkeley, had the “just brilliant” idea to look for extraterrestrial intelligence by doing a piggyback experiment, recycling data from other experiments and analyzing it for alien signals.
A brilliant idea, but Bowyer couldn’t get funding. Someone donated an antiquated computer, and someone else remembered that Jill Tarter knew how to program that particular model. So Bowyer showed up in Tarter’s office one day and dropped a report on her desk, written by SETI pioneer Barney Oliver. The report described building a large array of telescopes to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
“For me, this was ‘Eureka!’ I read it cover-to-cover without stopping. And this is a thick, difficult document. I was so turned on. What was really striking to me was that I lived in the first generation, after a millennia of philosophers asking this question, that could actually do the first experiments to try and answer the question. I found that just fascinating. Everything else paled. I couldn’t imagine a more interesting scientific career, and I still feel that way.”
According to Frank Drake, the first SETI researcher and author of Is Anyone Out There?, it was terrifically brave of Tarter, who was not only just a graduate student but also a female scientist, to take up the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In the late ’60s, adopting such a fringe project could have derailed a career that had barely begun. But Tarter has been driven since the moment she read Oliver’s document.
From her first work with that antiquated computer, using secondhand data, Tarter’s career has been, as she describes it, a roller-coaster ride. In the early years, her work was supported by NASA, but that support abruptly ended when, in 1993, Nevada Senator Richard Bryan convinced Congress to pull the plug on SETI, though the cost of the program was less than 0.1 percent of NASA’s annual budget. “It felt like someone had put a knife in my belly,” Tarter says. For two tumultuous weeks, she and her colleagues fought to retain their funding. They lost the battle on a Friday. “I came home that night and said to my husband, ‘Don’t leave me alone this weekend. Don’t leave me around any sharp objects.'”
Before the weekend was over, Tarter had characteristically rebounded. One of her colleagues telephoned and said, “If what we were doing on Thursday made sense, then it’s going to make sense again on Monday. We just have to figure out a way to keep this funded.” On Monday, they started researching how to raise funds.
Fortunately, the SETI Institute already had been established as a not-for-profit organization, so the basis for philanthropic giving was already in place. Barney Oliver, in his mid-seventies, began a second career of fund-raising. According to Tarter, many people owed him favors, and he’d never cashed in those chips. Thanks to Oliver, Project Phoenix was born, and Tarter and her colleagues were able to continue their search. The SETI Institute, which now oversees about 35 projects in addition to Phoenix, is funded by a few major donors, such as William Hewlett, David Packard, Gordon Moore, Paul Allen, and Barney Oliver, as well as many other individuals and foundations.As director of Project Phoenix, Tarter wears a number of different hats, including those of fund-raiser and educator, but she insists on her forty days a year observing at the large radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. “I don’t care what title they give me, or what else is in my job description, that’s the reward. That’s the fun part.”Each night at Arecibo, Tarter takes the helm of the huge telescope from midnight until six in the morning. In truth, most of the time it’s “just a babysitting job.” The silicon intelligence makes most of the decisions and crunches all the data. “The thing I like about it is that it’s a very focusing experience. While I’m there, there is no question that observing is the highest priority task I have. When I’m home, I’m all over the map; it’s very hard to focus on one thing for any length of time. When I’m observing, that comes first, and it’s so satisfying to be wholly involved in one activity.”
The search program at Arecibo has been refined over the years so that “now it’s really pretty slick, lots of bells and whistles. In the beginning, we had to run it by hand. Now it’s smarter than we are.” Project Phoenix is the only SETI (a term that is now equivalent to “biology” or “chemistry”) project doing a targeted search. This means that rather than looking at big swaths of the sky, specific stars are selected as more likely candidates for housing intelligent life: Each targeted star is the subject of a five-minute observation. “We work at a statistical threshold of false alarms where noise alone has the ability to trigger and successfully get through the filters we’ve set up. Typically, in one five-minute observation, the system will detect from a few to a few thousand signals, depending on what portion of the spectrum we’re on. Those signals get looked up automatically on a database.”
A second telescope also observes the same star. If both telescopes pick up the potential signal, there is a moment of great excitement. The automatic observing program will interrupt itself and move both telescopes to double-check the signal. Tarter and her colleagues gather around the computer screen, hoping that this time it really is ET calling.
“We’ve had a couple of spectacular false alarms,” Tarter laughs, “but it’s been because we’d lost a second telescope.”
Should a signal ever be confirmed by both telescopes, Tarter will call yet another observatory, farther to the west. “I make a personal phone call and ask for discretionary telescope time from the director to confirm the source of our signal. The reason we take this last precautionary observation is because we always worry about a hoax, and the best place to do a hoax would be to put it in our software. So we have somebody confirm the signal with software we didn’t write and equipment we didn’t build.”
Neither Project Phoenix nor any other SETI project has yet detected a signal from an extraterrestrial technology. Asked what keeps her going, year after year, Tarter says simply, “It’s the potential. That’s intrinsically the most exciting thing.”
Besides, she points out, the search has only just begun. Out of the billions of stars in our galaxy, fewer than a thousand have been scrutinized with high sensitivity. There are roughly 400 billion other stars in our galaxy, and nearly 100 billion other galaxies. From Tarter’s perspective, it’s not at all surprising that we haven’t yet detected signals.
Tarter emphasizes that her primary goal is the continuation of the quest. In her lifetime, she may or may not witness a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, but she intends to provide the funding into the future “so that this exploratory process can continue for as long as it has to. My personal goal is to raise a couple of hundred million dollars as an endowment fund so that the income can allow future generations to do this until they are successful in making contact, or humanity comes to the consensus that, for all practical purposes, we are alone.”
Tarter also wants to make sure those generations understand the ramifications of such a search. She has a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a year-long high school curriculum on interdisciplinary science. With a twinkle, she notes, “Just because I never do anything controversial, I chose evolution as the overarching theme for this curriculum, starting with evolution of the universe, planets, life, and technology.”No matter how many hats Tarter wears in her position as director, she is first and foremost a scientist, which means she refuses to speculate. Though she has based her career on searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, she insists that she has no preconceived answers. Does she really believe it’s possible that we’re the only intelligent civilization in the universe?”The universe is stranger than we give it credit for, so although that would be a strange answer, it’s possible,” Tarter says. “I have a goal to answer a question, and I don’t know what that answer is. Obviously, I’m predisposed, from what we know about how life evolved here on Earth, to see how that process could happen somewhere else. And everything we’ve learned in the years since I began graduate school has made that seem more probable rather than less. I like [Belgian scientist] Cristian DeDuve’s statement that ‘Life is a cosmic imperative.’ Biology is really just complicated chemistry, and given similar situations it will happen elsewhere.”
With new planets being discovered almost weekly, Tarter says, “We’re on the verge of being able to find solar-system analogues. If after ten years we haven’t seen any, that would be interesting. But I think we probably will.”
So Tarter lives on a daily basis with the possibility of an imminent relationship between humanity and another intelligent community in the universe. The SETI Institute sought help from more than UN bureaucrats. “We brought in religious leaders, the media, social scientists, people who represent all the skills we don’t have. They came to the conclusion that a prepared world might deal more rationally with alien contact.”
A 1989 document spells out what should be done if a signal is received. Called the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” this short protocol with the long name has been voluntarily adopted by all SETI research groups. If Tarter is the one to detect the first signal, she says she will make a quick courtesy call to her funders, and then notify the world.
Project Phoenix, along with other SETI projects, has agreed to not respond to signals. Tarter explains, “Receiving a message doesn’t necessarily commit the planet, but certainly a transmitted reply is committing the planet. And we don’t think that’s within our purview as scientists.”
Except the truth of the matter, Tarter admits, is that not only would there be a reply from Earth, but there would be a cacaphony of replies. “Anybody who had a transmitter would immediately respond in any way they thought best and there is no enforceable way that could not happen right now.”Besides there being no consensus on what humans would say to another civilization, there is another more practical reason why Project Phoenix is only listening and not transmitting messages: moving at the speed of light is slower than you think, given the immense distances. If the receiving civilization were a hundred light years away, it would be two hundred years before we got their reply.But even though Project Phoenix hasn’t sent any intentional messages, human beings have been transmitting high-frequency radio, television, and radar signals into space for more than fifty years. Light and radio waves leak into space, and our earliest TV broadcasts have reached about a thousand nearby stars. It is possible that an alien civilization, living on a planet orbiting one of these stars, might be switching on I Love Lucy.
Tarter is less concerned with what aliens are watching than with how her fellow human beings view her work here on Earth. She and her SETI colleagues have spent several decades building scientific credibility. Every ten years, NASA and the National Science Foundation hire the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to do a study of what projects should be pursued in the next decade and how they should be ranked. In each Decadal Review since 1970, SETI has risen in the rankings.
But while her fellow scientists shower her with awards, the general public is less convinced. “There are folks out there who don’t think we’re credible,” Tarter says. “There are folks out there who think we’re chasing UFOs, and who want to tell us about their thirdhand abduction experiences. Over the years we have had to put up a very steep wall that discriminates between the science that we pursue and the pseudoscience that is so popular.”
A certain dread weights Tarter’s voice when she speaks of the close encounters she has had with UFO-happy folks. “I ask them what evidence they have. What’s the data? Show me proof. I ask them why they would believe something so incredible.”
Of course there’s no evidence, the abduction theorists tell her. The government is covering up these encounters. They don’t want us to know about them.
Covering up an extraterrestrial visit to Earth, Tarter emphasizes, would be absolutely impossible. Secrecy is not a goal of the SETI Institute, nor of any other SETI project. “If you ever hear anything from us, expect to be given all the discovery data to analyze and look at for yourself, and make your own conclusions. This is not going to be a secret.”
Tarter ignores these fanciful musings, but doesn’t she wonder what the beings will look like? What kinds of technologies will they have? Will they be friends or foes?Tarter says she doesn’t think much about the intelligent beings she has spent her life listening for. “People assume that we’re sitting around drinking coffee and talking about these things. We’re not. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any poetry in my soul. It doesn’t do me any good to think about what might happen, because my imagination is so paltry. This is going to be alien, which means this is going to be different, not life as we know it. I’m trying to answer a question that has a yes/no answer, and that alone–getting an answer–would be so phenomenal that I don’t need anything else.”Tarter does believe that our extraterrestrial neighbors, if they contact us, will be from a far older, more advanced civilization. They couldn’t be any younger than us and play this game; we’re in our technological infancy, just now discovering the means for listening. A civilization that contacts us will most likely be beyond us technologically.
Though Tarter claims she does not indulge herself by imagining that first signal, colleague Carl Sagan did just that in his novel Contact. Moreover, Sagan allegedly based his main character, Ellie Arroway, on Jill Tarter.
Tarter first heard about the novel from Sagan’s wife at a party. She took Tarter aside and said that Carl was writing a book and that Tarter might recognize one of the characters. “I think you’ll like her,” Sagan’s wife said.
Sagan sent Tarter a prepublication copy of the book while she was observing at Arecibo. Much of the novel is set in Arecibo, and Tarter was stunned by how closely Ellie Arroway’s story resembled her own life, including the early death of her father. “There were a couple of things that amazed me, details in that character that Carl didn’t know about me. Ellie Arroway drove a ’54 T-bird convertible –my dream car! She wasn’t allowed to take shop in high school, things like that. I was beside myself. How can this be? I kept thinking, ‘Carl doesn’t know this!'”
Even the second half of the novel, after contact has been made, corresponds to some of Tarter’s own dreams. Ellie Arroway eventually gets to take off in a spacecraft, designed by aliens, to go visit the extraterrestrial neighbors. While Tarter has not yet traveled in a rocket, one of her dearest wishes has always been to be the first woman on the moon. After receiving her PhD in astrophysics, she applied to be an astronaut but was turned down, to her great disappointment.
Tarter was pleased with how faithful the novel was to SETI and to the life of a scientist. “Another thing that was so close to home, and I was so startled to read it, was having a man claiming your work as his. That’s probably not just a male/female thing. Young male scientists get abused in this way as well by senior colleagues. It’s very stinging. It’s one of the things you remember.” Tarter declined to give specifics from her own life. “But Carl knew about my experience. I’m sure he even experienced that kind of thing himself.”
There was one thing Sagan got wrong, though, according to Tarter, and she wrote him to explain. “When someone tells you you can’t do something because you’re female, you don’t just intellectualize it. Yes, in the end, my response is, I’ll figure out a way to do it anyway. But that’s my end response. My first response is to feel like I’ve been kicked. And to be furious. And very angry. Because it’s so unfair.” Sagan wrote back to say that it was too late to change the story, that the book was already at the press.In 1997, the novel was made into a Hollywood movie, with Jodie Foster playing Ellie Arroway. Tarter was engaged as a consultant. “Dealing with the movie company was a marvelously educational experience. First of all, Jodie Foster was a delight. She’s so intelligent, very kind, quite a powerhouse. We had these phone conversations. She would ask, ‘Do astronomers have big egos?’ Things like that.”A film crew of 400 descended on the telescope site at Arecibo. Tarter enjoyed giving Foster a tour of her “cathedral,” the big radio telescope. “The bits of the film done at Arecibo are quite gorgeous,” Tarter notes.
Unfortunately, there was one gross mistake in the film. During the first kiss scene, Ellie Arroway quotes an utterly flawed equation. Appalled, Tarter alerted the producer, but he told her, “Come on, Dr. Tarter, there’ll be three people in the audience that catch that. Nobody will notice it. This movie will help young women become scientists.” Sagan died shortly before the completion of the film, and Tarter thought, “Carl would be turning over in his grave.”
The film was dedicated to Sagan. He too had spent time on the set, and Foster told Tarter that she had been enthralled by his discourses on what life as a scientist was like. But the SETI Institute, which had been heavily involved in consulting for the film, received no screen credit. Tarter blames her naivete. “We didn’t know we were supposed to have a lawyer write a letter to Warner Bros. about our credits. When I write a scientific paper, I acknowledge the people who helped.” Still, Tarter seems happy with the fairly accurate picture Contact delivers about SETI research.
While the chances of Tarter getting the opportunity to travel to the home of an extraterrestrial civilization are remote, her chance of being on hand to detect an alien signal will increase significantly in the coming decade. Project Phoenix has obtained funding to build an array of radio telescopes just north of Mt. Lassen that will be far more powerful than any SETI search tools used to date. The Allen Telescope Array, named for its chief funder, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, will be the first telescope dedicated solely to SETI research. No longer will Tarter and her colleagues be limited to the forty days a year. The new dedicated array, built with UC Berkeley, will search 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will have the ability to study different areas of the sky at once, as many as a million nearby stars at a time. In the same time it takes Project Phoenix to observe a thousand stars from one to three GHz, the Allen Telescope Array can observe 100,000 stars from one to ten GHz.
Tarter says, “We’ll either succeed gloriously or we’ll fall flat on our faces. But no one expects to stumble. We’ll make it work. We intend to succeed. It will change how we do radio astronomy.”
But Tarter is already planning the next, even better, observatory, which she says must be built on the other side of the moon. She calls this next step a “necessity,” explaining that “there is so much noise in the sky, we will need to do this.” However, she doesn’t see it happening in the near future, though such a telescope is already technologically feasible. It won’t be done, she says, unless there’s some reason other than a scientific one. “There’s no political will for human exploration at the moment. If we go back to the moon for colonization or resource usage, perhaps we can keep part of the moon as a scientific preserve.”
Tarter manages to balance her long-range vision with pragmatism, and her ability to jump fast with an almost unimaginable patience. She’s never lost her desire to search deeper into the universe, to examine larger portions of the sky: “There is,” she says, “no end to our appetite.”