If you’ve heard of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), or even seen the movie Contact (Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, is largely based on Tarter), then you know a little bit about Jill Tarter already. Tarter was instrumental in the founding of the SETI program, and is the focus of this week’s Countdown to #AdaLovelaceDay post (one week to go!). Read on.
Earlier this year, SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, got a much-needed cash injection from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner — $100 million dollars to help in the search. But much of the research that’s going to take place thanks to that donation rests on the scientific infrastructure and discourse built in large part by Jill Tarter.
Jill Cornell (later Tarter) was born in 1944 on the outskirts of New York City, where she grew up. Her aunt and uncle lived in southern Florida, though, and when she was small she used to visit. It was there, walking along the beaches at night with her father, that she says she first looked up and wondered whether there were other people on other beaches, on other planets, wondering the same same thing. She was an inveterate tomboy, she says, always taking things apart and putting them back together, lamenting that she had to take “home economics” instead of shop class. After high school, she tried to get a scholarship to Cornell — she’s a direct descendant of the school’s founder — but they told her that those scholarships were only available to male descendants. Thankfully, Proctor and Gamble jumped in and offered her a full five-year scholarship, and she became the only woman in a class of three hundred engineers.
Tarter received her degree in engineering physics in 1966, and moved on to a master’s degree in theoretical physics the next year. Except, she admits, she found the professors to be rather dull: “I didn’t want to become as boring as my professors,” she says. So after starting graduate study at Cornell, in 1968 she transferred to an Astronomy program at UC Berkeley. She received her master’s degree in 1971, and her doctorate in 1975 for work on brown dwarfs, which she continued to study for a couple of years as a postdoc at the NASA Ames Research Center.
But it was while she was working back at UC Berkeley as a research astronomer, from 1977 to 1985, that she met Stuart Bowyer. Bowyer, an X-ray astronomer, was working on finding signals from “little green men” — Frank Drake (of the Drake Equation) had performed the first SETI work in the 1960s, and Bowyer’s group was continuing in that vein, with very little in the way of funding. They were using a computer so old that no-one knew how to program it, and that’s where Tarter came in. Somehow Bowyer found out that she had this arcane knowledge, and asked her to be involved. He handed her the Project Cyclops report and after reading it from cover-to-cover, in her words: “I was hooked!”
Since then, Jill Tarter has served as the director of the institute, leading the NASA SETI program until its cancellation in 1993; then the project’s resurrection, Project Phoenix, until 2004. She helped design the Allen Telescope Array (so called because of its funding from Paul Allen) which, though not complete — the project had originally called for 350 dishes, and currently has only 42 — has stood as a test-bed for technologies that will hopefully be deployed in the Square Kilometer Array in the next decade.
Despite the fact that she was given a “lifetime achievement award” back in 1989, Tarter is still heavily involved with SETI, though she stepped down as the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in 2012. She was named one of Time Magazine’s “Top 100” for the 20th century, and has most recently been elected president of the California Academy of Sciences.
If you want to learn more about her, there are a ton of great interviews with Tarter out there on the internet, including this one over at seti.org, and this one over at the Huffington Post. She’s also got a thirty-second video explaining why we search for alien life that’s totally worth watching.
Join us next Tuesday when we’ll be celebrating #AdaLovelaceDay here at This Week In Tomorrow. Thanks for reading!
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and amazing women in STEM) here at This Week In Tomorrow.