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

Who was Jill Tarter? How did she contribute to the search for extraterrestrial life?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
July 11, 2017
Episode #245

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EE: Your narrative details a few instances when there was hope that a signal might have been extraterrestrial in origin, only to find out we had once again only detected evidence of ourselves. But for the most part, the ups and downs of SETI you describe have mainly to do with funding. At the start of your book, Jill Tarter links the importance of SETI to the importance of understanding our own origin story. However, you later describe how Representative Silvio Conte asked “can we afford curiosity?” when moving to cut Congressional support for SETI. What do you think is the main driver behind the fluctuating interest – and thus funding – in SETI?

SS: I think the reason SETI has faced so much political and financial opposition in its pretty short history is that it doesn’t have a definite payoff. We can all have our opinions about whether there is extraterrestrial intelligence, but no one actually knows if there’s anyone else out there and no one knows for sure at all how to find them if they are, and no one knows how long it might take, if it works at all. In the meantime, here on Earth, there’s things like war and racism and poverty and genocide, crumbling infrastructure, the erosion of democracy. The world just has a ton of problems and SETI doesn’t necessarily help solve those.

But I think there’s value in human curiosity and in thinking on timescales longer than our own lives which SETI requires. So there’s not necessarily immediate value in looking for aliens in the way that a politician or a funder might like, but I think there’s value in trying to answer these really big questions. How did life get here? Are we alone? Because we spend a lot of time thinking about very terrestrial things and doing all our everyday stuff like going to work, making dinner, playing with our kids, worrying about the world. I don’t think we should use SETI as an excuse not to worry about the world. I think the world deserves to be worried about. But it’s a good way to give perspective. I kind of think about it like going on a backpacking trip or a trip into the wilderness where you’re just surrounded by the wonder of nature. You still have to go back to work but your brain is in this reset spot when you go back and I think SETI can do that for people.  

EE: Where does SETI stand now? Who are its biggest funders? Is it still mainly a labor of love born by radio astronomers and engineers?

SS: Well, I think SETI as a field is in a pretty good spot right now compared to where it’s been in the past. The SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array which is in really far northern California is in the process of getting an upgrade which has been mostly funded by a guy named Franklin Antonio from the company Qualcom. So now it should be able to detect fainter messages from ET.

Also recently, a very rich person named Yuri Milner started a totally new SETI program called Breakthrough Listen which mostly uses the Green Bank Telescope which you talked about already. And on top of those ongoing programs, scientists have also discovered thousands of exoplanets outside of our solar system just in the past few years. So SETI scientists can target those or other nearby solar systems that seem like good places for life in a really realistic and practical way that wasn’t possible before they knew about these other planets. So, on the whole, I think things are looking up for SETI.

EE: Well, I for one am eager to learn what SETI may discover in their search. Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah, and please check out Sarah’s book Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence available on Amazon. I want to end with the following quote which Sarah Scoles offers towards the start of Making Contact, a quote from her protagonist, Jill Tarter:

I don’t expect extraterrestrial salvation. I don’t expect them to tell us how to solve our problems. But the very existence of such a civilization should motivate us to figure out a way to solve our own problems. It has the effect of trivializing the differences among Earthlings, differences that we’re willing to spill blood over.”

Now, that seems worth pursuing.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

Image courtesy of shutterstock


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