Jill Tarter, Feminist Cosmic Icon

A new book about the astronomer describes the struggles she faced while trying to answer one question: Are we alone in the universe?

SETI astronomer Jill Tarter, wearing her trademark turtle earrings, shows a model of the Allen Telescope Array in California.
SETI astronomer Jill Tarter, wearing her trademark turtle earrings, shows a model of the Allen Telescope Array in California. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

The first scholarly paper on the search for extraterrestrial life was published in Nature in 1959, and ended like this: “The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search the chance of success is zero.”

Jill Tarter has spent more than 40 years working on that search. Tarter is an astronomer and co-founder of the SETI Institute in California, and, among many other things, the inspiration for Ellie Arroway, the alien-hunting protagonist of Carl Sagan’s 1985 classic science-fiction novel Contact. While big thinkers like Sagan were popularizing the mysteries of the universe on television, Tarter was working behind the scenes. She spent countless hours managing underfunded telescopes, fundraising for projects, publishing paper after paper, and trying to convince skeptics that the search for extraterrestrial life, this strange new field, was worth it.

And Tarter did it at a time when women were encouraged to do the opposite. “Why do you want to take calculus? You’re just going to get married and have babies,” a high-school guidance counselor told her. When she enrolled in Cornell University’s undergraduate engineering program in 1965, she was the only woman out of 300 students. On her first day of graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, the head of the astronomy department, a man, told Tarter and two other female students they were lucky “that all the smart men got drafted for Vietnam”—leaving space for them here.

Tarter, now in her seventies, retired a few years ago—but she’s not done with her search, says Sarah Scoles, a science journalist and author of an excellent new biography of Tarter, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. I interviewed Scoles about Tarter’s pioneering work, the challenge of asking unanswerable questions, and how we should think about SETI. Our conversation has been edited for length.

Marina Koren: So my first reaction to this book was, wow, Jill Tarter never sleeps. She is tireless. What drives her?

Sarah Scoles: Maybe she is an alien, and that’s why she doesn’t experience the very human need for REM cycles and why she desires to distract us from her true identity by searching for (other) aliens.

I’m kidding, obviously. Jill Tarter is definitely not an alien, and she probably sleeps sometime, although I’m still not quite sure when that time is. Her drive, to me, seems to come from her true investment in answering the question to which she’s dedicated her life: Are we alone? She really, really wants to answer it—and if she can’t, which is the possibility that seems most likely at this point, she’d like to ensure that SETI is as healthy as possible as a field, scientifically and financially, so it can live on in the future. I think she knows that other people do sleep, so she feels compelled, as a permanently awake person, to do a little more than her fair share to push the search for extraterrestrial intelligence further.

I also think she also genuinely enjoys the work, and working. “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” is a phrase I hate and a phrase I think is pretty much always untrue. SETI is what Tarter loves; it is also work.

Koren: She also sounds like a badass. She came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, when most women were put on a direct path to marriage and children, rather than toward careers. But she wasn’t having any of that. How did she deal with that?

Scoles: Well, she did get married and have a kid—just not to the exclusion of a career. She wanted both a family life and a scientific life, and there weren’t a lot of examples demonstrating that that was a possibility, or lighting up a path she could follow. She told me once that she was “always looking” for role models. I think it’s interesting that that was important to even someone who herself was a kind of pioneer, and a role model for so many who came after her. You (or at least I) don’t really think about those first-to-do-X types needing examples—they are the examples. But it turns out that they do: They want or need someone whose life says, “Hey, here’s what’s possible,” and then they think, “Okay, I’ll expand on that.”

Two of Tarter’s younger-life heroes were Mika Salpeter, a neurobiologist who hosted dinner-and-dancing parties during Tarter’s years at Cornell, and Margaret Burbidge, who once had to sneak into Mount Wilson Observatory by pretending to be her husband’s assistant (women weren’t allowed) and later became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Koren: Tarter’s education coincided with SETI really growing as a field—but it wasn’t being taken seriously. Why?

Scoles: For millennia, people could only wonder about extraterrestrial life. Is it out there? Where’s it live? Are there even other planets, or is Earth the center of the entire universe? And it’s really only in the past 50 years or so that scientists have had the technological ability to do SETI in a scientific way—by systematically searching for broadcasts or engineering of various sorts from light-years and light-years away.

Fifty years is a lot shorter than many millennia. I think it takes a long time for humans to change their cultural opinions, and it makes sense to me that people would have a hard time switching, over the course of a few generations, from “aliens are for philosophical conversations and sci-fi, and so is searching for them” to “no, but really, we have Ph.D.s in astronomy, and we’re quite serious about SETI.”

Koren: So it seems like Tarter came up with a double handicap. She was a woman in a boys’ club, and working in an astronomical field that some people thought was a waste of time. What was that like?

Scoles: It wasn’t easy. Tarter had to fight for her own legitimacy in terms of identity and in terms of science. People told her, in words and actions, not to pursue physics and astronomy because she was a woman; they told her not to pursue SETI because it didn’t fit into traditional research. In college, she was the only woman in many of her classes; as a researcher, she was the only woman in many of her meetings; in astronomy, she and her colleagues were some of the few doing this fringe-seeming alien-hunting. She had to spend a lot of her energy both saying and demonstrating that she belonged, and that SETI belonged.

Koren: How did she push SETI from a fledgling field into what it is today?

Scoles: It’s always been really important to Tarter that if scientists are going to do SETI, they should do it right—by which she means systematically and scientifically. If “Are we alone?” is a question now under the domain of science, rather than faith or philosophy, the scientists should treat it like any other research problem. So Tarter and her colleagues together created NASA’s first SETI program, which had a couple of names but ended up as the High Resolution Microwave Survey. This project was supposed to look deeply at nearby star systems, and then survey more shallowly a bigger section of sky, searching for radio transmissions that looked like they could come from alien technology. It operated for just a year before the federal government shut it down.

After that, Tarter and those same colleagues raised millions in private money to restart the program as Project Phoenix. Since then, the team has also built their own telescope in Northern California. I think the key thing, in all this, is that she helped formalize SETI, and quantify its progress, so they could say more than, “No, we didn’t find aliens,” but, instead, “Here’s what we can statistically say about what our null result means.”

Koren: The work seemed to involve constant attempts to find funding, and Tarter spent most of her time flying around the world trying to raise money. Why was it difficult to fund SETI research?

Scoles: First, I think it’s difficult because many people don’t take the subject seriously. Imagine going to a rich person and saying, “Hey, I’d like to use your investments to see if E.T. is phoning.” Some would probably say, and have said, “Great! Thank you for your interest in the cosmos.” Others would probably say, and have said, “Definitely, definitely not.” Second, I think people understandably see a lot of problems on our own planet, with our own species, and want to help fix those. SETI doesn’t provide clean drinking water, you know? And, third, there’s no guarantee SETI scientists will ever find intelligent life, and no timeline on the possibility that they do. Could happen tomorrow. Could happen in 1,000 years. It’s not a particularly time-sensitive investment for someone to make.

Koren: How did Tarter make the public, politicians, and other astronomers care?

Scoles: To convince people that SETI was viable, Tarter had to go both big-picture and small-detail. She had to frame SETI as this fundamentally human enterprise, one that investigates the core questions that linger at the back of our collective consciousness: Why are we here? How did we get here? Where do we fit into the universe? Are there others out there who wonder the same things? She had to give the TED-style version of SETI before TED Talks existed. And then she had to show that scientists had the technical wherewithal to investigate those questions, getting into the nittiest, grittiest details of radio-telescope receivers and antenna arrays. She laid out the philosophical groundwork, and then broke out, essentially, the engineering blueprints.

Koren: How did Tarter’s work affect the women astronomers who came after her, particularly in SETI?

Scoles: Well, to this day, there aren’t many SETI researchers, and there are few women SETI researchers. But I think Tarter—and the fictional character partly modeled on her, Ellie Arroway in Contact—impacted women who went into other fields of astronomy. The plural of anecdote is not data, but I know that a lot of women around my age, who were young adolescents when Contact the movie came out, watched that movie and saw, for perhaps the first time, a scientist they identified with as a human, who was doing work that seemed important and inspiring. And that helped them picture themselves doing something similar. She has been, for them, what Salpeter and Burbidge were for her.

Koren: It’s not uncommon for scientists to spend whole decades on finding the answer to a single problem. But what is like to work on a problem that you may never get an answer for?

Scoles: I think astronomy, in particular, forces scientists to have what some of them call a “cosmic perspective.” The universe is big and will continue to get bigger; it is also old and will continue to get older. Our place in it geographically and chronologically is very small. And I think that helps astronomers place their work into a different context than other fields. One individual’s life and work are just minuscule, no matter who they are or what they do. And I think Tarter sees the whole human endeavor in general, and SETI in particular, from that viewpoint.

That said, I’m sure she would have liked to have found an answer to the problem. After she retired a few years ago, she started thinking more concretely about what else she could contribute within her lifetime, if she can’t get a yes or a no to the question of intelligent aliens. And what she seemed to come to is that she could help convey that cosmic perspective to the world at large.

Koren: So let’s jump to what we, humanity, have sent out there, for someone else to hear. Tarter thought the message that Voyager 1 carried back in 1977 wasn’t representative of Earth, that “we had lied through our teeth.” What should we be shouting into the void?

Scoles: For Tarter’s part, she doesn’t necessarily think we should be shouting into the void—not because she’s afraid that will draw malevolent interstellar marauders to us, but because she doesn’t think we’re ready to do it right. And “right,” here, means broadcasting continuously for a long time with a message that people all around the globe can agree on.

But when she said we had lied through our teeth in the Voyager message, she meant that we had left out the bad parts of Earth-life, like all that fighting we do. She thinks a portrait of humanity should include our flaws.

Very smart people have spent a lot of time thinking about how to send a representative message that could be understood by beings that, you know, might not even have eyes and definitely do not speak any of Earth’s languages. But, for my part, I’d be happy to receive a content-free ping that only conveys, “Hey, we’re out here, too!” It’s hard to misread that. And so, in my opinion, that would be a great thing to say ourselves sometime.