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.