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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Of Listening and Waiting: Jill Tarter and the First Forty Years of SETI

For scientists engaged in speculative research, the invisible adversary is nothing less than science’s own history of conspicuous success. For 500 years, we have been pointing at problems and watching as science regularly solves them. We thought flying would be cool. Science handled it. We believed polio was rather a bad thing. Science locked that down too. We wanted to be able to walk around and virtually capture imaginary combat animals. Science paused a while, wondering perhaps about our priorities, but did it anyway.

Our every technological whim indulged, we are impatient and skeptical of any project that refuses to forecast semi-immediate success. And where there's money involved that skepticism shades to viciousness quickly.

Witness the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, the umbrella term for a dozen branches of scientific research that have as their goal the describing and finding of possible extra-terrestrial life. Over the last half century it has been pummeled by politicians and satirists, scorned by mainstream astronomers, and forced to eke its way through funding complications tortuous even by scientific standards. And at the grinding centre of the movement for forty of those years was astronomer Jill Cornell Tarter (b. 1944).

Her story reads like a Scared Straight program to be shown to prospective science students, an object lesson in how scientific idealism gets caught and crushed between the gears of political opportunism and inter-disciplinary jealousy. For all the frustration her future would hold, however, her early youth was a veritable idyll of tomboying about with her father, fishing and taking things apart and blissfully ignoring her mother’s entreaties to take an interest in ‘girlish’ things.

But that story came to a hard stop when her father died when she was but twelve years old, a victim of cancer, as her mother would be decades later, and as she herself would grapple successfully with in mid-life. Suddenly, an earlier promise she had made to her father to become an engineer took on the hue of a life-directing vow and she bent herself to math and the sciences, attending Cornell as the only woman engineering student in a class of three hundred.

She powered through the isolation, labeled a hopeless nerd by the other women students in her dorm, while being excluded from the all-male study sessions populated with people as interested by science as she. For graduate school, she turned to astronomy, which was just entering its third Great Age. If the 18th century flowered under the direction of Newtonian Mechanics, and the late 19th under the application of stellar spectroscopy, the mid to late 20th, was awash with new and exciting objects revealed by exquisite new instrumentation and methodology- quasars, pulsating neutron stars, black holes, and some shimmering signs suggesting exobiological elements.

The staid and steady universe was misbehaving and a new crop of astronomers rose to the challenge of sussing out explanations for these new behaviors and phenomena. Tarter was drawn to this world of galactic-scale questions, and was starting to compile expertise in the programming of telescopic software routines when a small cabal of scientists and thinkers began pondering a question simple in its expression but massive and labyrinthine in its elaboration: How likely is it that life has occurred elsewhere, and is there a way to discover it?

There is a truly sprawling parade of scientific disciplines hidden under that question. Biological questions about what constitutes life, chemical questions of how life began and what it needs to thrive, psychological questions about the nature of intelligence, sociological questions about the rise and fall of civilisations, physical questions about how communication on a galactic scale might work, astronomical questions about where to look for communicative signals, and engineering questions about how to gather and filter the cacophony of electromagnetic galactic noise bombarding our planet. There is hardly a branch of science that SETI doesn't touch at its most basic level, and so, for a certain type of Big Thinker, there is hardly any field more alluring.

Photo by Victor Ruiz

In 1975, four years after NASA sponsored an initial survey into the feasibility of a SETI-type program (named, because NASA is awesome, Project Cyclops), Tarter approached SETI pioneer John Billingham, and volunteered her services, thereby making the first step in a journey that would encompass four decades of struggle, triumph, and deep frustration.

All of that struggle can be summed up in one vile word: FUNDING. When SETI was primarily funded by NASA, it was routinely the target of flamboyant senators who saw they could earn easy political points by publicly mocking SETI as a waste of public money. Just like when the new kid in school realises he can survive by finding the class nerd and rubbing his face in the dirt, so did a generation of politicians view criticism of SETI as a sure, if callow, way onto the evening news.

Tarter’s team had to fight for every dollar to buy time at telescopes, develop new software and receiving equipment, and pay the staff. They worked under a succession of vague, non-SETI-sounding acronyms to keep the senatorial predators off their scent, while pushing ahead knowledge on a dozen different fronts. Working on shoestring budgets with the constant threat of complete shutdown looming over their heads, they somehow managed to piece together answers and policies to SETI’s deep questions: What distinguishes a natural radio signal from an artificial one? Is it better to survey all the nearest stars or to sample a bit from every sector of space? How do you electronically coordinate an alternate telescope to confirm a likely signal from your primary?

By 1992 Tarter and her team had the strategy, the software, the equipment, and the NASA funding to begin observations at the massive Arecibo Observatory. Experience should have taught them to keep their heads low and get their work done, but instead they chose to launch on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing with a press conference boldly announcing their existence and intentions.

Politicians who had assumed SETI long dead rose from their slumber as one and resumed their old refrain. And, just like that, after a decade and a half of planning and research, Tarter’s program was cut again. A lesser person might have taken this subtle hint from the universe and returned to the fold of traditional astronomy, but Tarter knew the questions she had posed were important, perhaps even fundamental to our basic sense of our own humanity. If government wouldn't fund her, perhaps industry might.

She needed a concentrated cadre of science enthusiasts and earnest futurists who also happened to be grotesquely wealthy. In 1993 that meant one place: Silicon Valley. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard of, wait for it, Hewlett & Packard, gave a million each. Microsoft’s Paul Allen dug deeper still and soon $7.5 million was raised. Plans were drawn up for the Allen Telescope Array – 350 radio telescopes that would deliver unparalleled resolution, bristling with state of the art electronics and next-wave processing power.

It was a brilliant vision, but it would require time to assemble and, the longer it took, the scarcer on the ground investors became, nobody wanting to be the last supporter of a doomed cause. Ultimately, only 42 telescopes were constructed by 2007, while Tarter herself retired from her position at the SETI Institute in 2012 to free up funding for the payment of other scientists’ salaries.

Still active as the world’s most famous SETI advocate (she was the basis for Ellie Arroway in the novel and film Contact by Carl Sagan), her career at the helm of a deeply committed but often rogue scientific vessel serves as inspiration to idealists and a cautionary tale to careerists – somebody had to take the knocks, and weather the ridicule, to birth a science so vast it might not secure its end in a hundred years or a thousand. Somebody with the grit to survive but the imagination to plan for a future still seven steps away. Somebody who could take satisfaction in putting the pieces in place that her intellectual descendents might know the thrill of announcing to a divisive world, There Are Others.

The technology and knowledge developed in assembling the SETI program have vast merit on their own, but it is the cause they were created to serve – Tarter’s cause – our cause as reflective and curious living beings – that will live, beyond Tarter or you or I, to that distant fringe of a day when our planet becomes a bit more humble, and a bit less alone.


Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (2017) by Sarah Scoles is the book, benefiting from hours of interviews with Tarter herself. The organisation of the chapters can be disorienting, and I’d have liked more on Tarter the scientist, but as the first biography to give Tarter her full due, it's a necessary part of anybody’s Women In Science library. Also, heck, read Carl Sagan’s Contact, because it's rad.

And if you'd like to read more about women astronomers like Jill Tarter, check out my History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration, which you can order from Amazon, or from Pen and Sword US or UK.

Header photo by Max Alexander.



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