Jill Tarter

Jill's AntennaAstronomer and Former Director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

“I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.”

Jill Tarter has spent 35 years searching for an answer to a very old question: Is there extraterrestrial life in the universe? Her answer: “I think it’s perfectly possible. Everything that we have learned, or that we think we know about the cosmos and about life, suggests it is plausible that what happened here could have happened elsewhere. It is a legitimate question to pose of the cosmos, and I honestly don’t know what the answer is.”

SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, uses giant radio telescopes to scan space for signals from alien species. Tarter says detecting a signal will have much to teach us.

“I had just grown up assuming that many of those stars up there in the sky were somebody else’s sun. In the past we asked the priests, the philosophers about life out there. But here, in the middle of the 20th century, there were new tools — the tools of the astronomer — that would allow us to do an experiment, make observations and find the answer to this old question in a scientific manner.

“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. And that’s because we couldn’t possibly be successful with SETI unless technologies, on average, survive for a long time so that they can be lined up not just in three-dimensional space — close enough for us to find them — but in the fourth dimension, in time — so that they’re transmitting as we’re emerging.”

Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. She received her master’s and doctorate in astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work has brought her wide recognition in the scientific community, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, and two Public Service Medals from NASA. She was elected an AAAS Fellow in 2002 and a California Academy of Sciences Fellow in 2003. Tarter was the inspiration for Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact,” which was made into a film starring Jodie Foster.

“We’ve hardly begun to search,” she says. “The space that we’re looking through is nine-dimensional. If you build a mathematical model, the amount of searching that we’ve done in 50 years is equivalent to scooping one 8-ounce glass out of the Earth’s ocean, looking and seeing if you caught a fish. No, no fish in that glass? Well, I don’t think you’re going to conclude that there are no fish in the ocean. You just haven’t searched very well yet. That’s where we are.”

Twitter: @jilltarter

Jill Tarter at the 2013 BLE