The question of whether we’re alone in the universe has haunted humankind for thousands of years, and it’s one astronomer Jill Tarter has tried to answer for much of her life. Tarter, chair emeritus of the Center for SETI Research, worked as a project scientist for NASA’s SETI program, which aimed to detect transmissions from alien intelligence. She currently serves on the board for the Allen Telescope Array, a group of more than 350 telescopes north of San Francisco.
“We are looking for signals at some frequency, some wavelength that don’t look like what Mother Nature produces,” she said in 2014.
Tarter, an inspiration behind the novel and film “Contact,” visited campus last month to participate in the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s science symposium “The Undiscovered,” which addressed how scientists “explore realities they cannot anticipate.” We spoke with her about her work and why it matters.
GAZETTE: When did you first start thinking about other worlds?
TARTER: I think it was age 10 or so, walking on the west coast keys of Florida with my father and looking up at the sky. It just always seemed to me that probably walking along the beach on some other world there was some other creature with their father, looking and seeing our sun as a star in their sky.
GAZETTE: When you were a child did you have the sense that looking for intelligent life was something you wanted to do for your career, or that you might become an astronaut?
TARTER: I did apply to be an astronaut, but no, as a profession I stumbled onto it because I knew how to program an obsolete computer called a PDP84, and that piece of equipment was given to Stu Boyer, an astronomy professor who had a very clever idea for how to make use of the University of California, Berkeley, radio telescopes at Hat Creek to do a SETI search in a different way. He came and recruited me because I knew how to program that computer. For me, after millennia of asking priests and philosophers what we should believe, I just thought it was very exciting that right then in the middle of the 20th century we were beginning to have some tools — telescopes and computers — that allowed scientists and engineers to try to figure out what is, and not have to take somebody’s belief system. I thought that was really important and I got hooked.