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Dr. Jill Tarter: Looking to Make 'Contact'
By Amy Veltman

Special to

posted: 05:55 am ET
12 November 1999

Profile of Dr

With the soothing voice of a planetarium narrator -- warm, clear and authoritative -- Jill Tarter could lull the most hardened skeptic into the ranks of advocates of the search for extraterrestrial life.

Dr. Tarter, the woman upon whom Jodie Foster's character in the movie Contact was largely based, began studying theoretical physics after noting how dull her engineering professors were. She explains how the field worked when she was in school, "You got extra points for taking a new problem and solving it with a previously known solution; creative new solutions were frowned on."

It's hard to imagine Tarter boxed in by such thinking. As the head of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Research at the SETI Institute, Tarter realizes that technology has brought one of humanity's oldest questions -- "Are we alone?" -- into a new era. "We can just now begin to try and find scientific evidence as opposed to having to rely on belief," she notes. With the use of sensitive radio telescopes to scan the skies and computation on a massive scale to analyze the data, Tarter hopes to happen upon manifestations of distant technologies.
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After earning her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree from Cornell in four years instead of the usual five, she went on to earn a Masters and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley. Because she knew how to program the ancient mini-computer being used to analyze the data, she became involved in SERENDIP, a search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, which was piggybacking on more conventional experiments at the Hat Creek Observatory. The project's name was appropriate in more ways than one.

Tarter's participation ended up being serendipitous. At Hat Creek, she came across the Cyclops Report, which detailed the search for extraterrestrial life up to that point. Suddenly she realized, "It was the most interesting question there could be," and she was hooked.

As a scientist, she's doesn't seem to be waiting for a UFO to land in her backyard with a little green being emerging to give her the answers to our questions (though she's willing to examine the hard evidence presented by anyone who claims to have had such an encounter). When asked what it is she hopes to find, Tarter explains that, because of the time involved to travel the vast distances of space, any information that might arrive here from other worlds would have come from a time prior to our own. Therefore, it is something we might study in the way we do the works of Shakespeare or the Ancient Greeks.

Tarter sees her work as a basis for study that could easily continue through multiple generations before any conclusive proof of life elsewhere, or its lack, can be established. She is fueled by her motivation to improve the capacity of technology to aid us in a search. More specifically, she's working to help SETI establish a $100 million endowment so that their efforts to measure events that happen light-years away are not limited by the funding whims of comparatively brief congressional terms and their attendant fluctuating political climates.

Lest there are those who have a hard time seeing the value of this highly speculative branch of science, Tarter talks about just one of the interesting ancillary uses for some of the technology developed by SETI. "In looking for ways to pull signals out of noise very efficiently, one of my colleagues, Kent Cullers, and some folks at the University of South Florida have turned this into a way to automatically scan mammograms for micro-calcifications."

The privately-funded SETI conducts many of its experiments on telescopes shared with other institutions, but Tarter hopes that one day soon, she'll be able to be "on the air" all the time with a dedicated instrument made from television satellite dishes. "There are just a large number of emerging technologies that are happening right now -- not for science, but for consumer markets -- that we can use to build a radio telescope in a way that's never been done before.

"This is not your mother's radio telescope," Tarter quips. Unless you are this visionary's daughter, Shana, that's probably true. Very few mothers -- or fathers, for that matter -- have the vision of the scope of Dr. Jill Tarter and the requisite brilliance to explore it and communicate it as well as she does.

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