Retired Astronomer Jill Tarter, formerly of SETI, says she grew up “assuming that many of those stars up there in the sky were somebody else’s sun.”

This is a fairly interesting MSM article from the Wall Street Journal. However, from what Tarter says, the kind of science astronomers do is strictly 3D; so I can’t imagine they will find anything the ones they call “aliens” don’t want them to know about. Glad she talks about humans as “earthlings.” That snaps our internicine spats into perspective, something she obviously wants to do.

By Ben Worthen via

Jill Tarter, one of the world’s foremost alien hunters, is packing up her telescope.

SETI’s Jill Tarter, the inspiration for the movie “Contact,” retired after 30 years as director of research at SETI Institute, the Mountain View nonprofit that searches the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial life. Ms. Tarter retired from that job last month after more than 30 years. The 68-year-old now focuses on fundraising for the cash-strapped organization.

SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, uses giant radio telescopes to scan space for signals from alien species. Ms. Tarter, who has a Ph.D. in astronomy, hasn’t found any signals yet, but says she is more optimistic than ever about the organization’s chances.

Ms. Tarter was the inspiration for Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact,” which was made into a film starring Jodie Foster, and her career will be celebrated at a gala on Saturday. She recently discussed false signals, real hope and why Silicon Valley is a good place to raise funds. Edited excerpts:

WSJ: Did you enter this field with any philosophical predisposition toward the question of aliens?

Ms. Tarter: I had just grown up assuming that many of those stars up there in the sky were somebody else’s sun. In the past we asked the priests, the philosophers about life out there. But here, in the middle of the 20th century, there were new tools—the tools of the astronomer—that would allow us to do an experiment, make observations and find the answer to this old question in a scientific manner.

WSJ: What would an extraterrestrial signal look like?

Ms. Tarter: Most SETI projects today are looking for radio signals that show up at only one channel on the radio dial. The reason that we look for that is because nature can’t do this. Technology can.

WSJ: Have you found anything so far?

Ms. Tarter: There’s the Wow! signal detected at Ohio State [in 1977]. They picked up the printouts and this one signal was so strong that the person who collected the data wrote “wow!” in the margin.

The net result is at least 1,000 hours of telescope time has been spent trying to see whether this signal was real. It has never been reacquired. We don’t know what caused that. It could perhaps be a valid extraterrestrial signal. It could be some other terrestrial technology.

We also had a very exciting event in 1997 and it kept us going for the better part of a day. A piece of equipment had been damaged by lightning. We fooled ourselves.

WSJ: How do you not get frustrated?

Ms. Tarter: If you go into this field, you need to be mindful of how vast this undertaking is. Let’s say space is the oceans of the earth. Then in 50 years what we’ve done is scooped one glass out of that ocean and examined it and we haven’t found any fish. But we’re not ready to conclude there are no fish in the ocean.

WSJ: What keeps you going?

MS. Tarter: When we started SETI, planets were a good theory, but the only planetary system we knew about was our own. Now we know that there are many planets.

[We also now know about] organisms that live in boiling battery acid, in the cooling waters of nuclear reactors, at the bottom of the ocean where there’s no sunlight. So over my career, the potential habitable real estate out there has expanded enormously.

WSJ: Why do we assume that extraterrestrial life is more advanced than us?

Ms. Tarter: We can’t find [life], so we’re using technology as a proxy, as a way to infer the existence of intelligent life. If you’re talking about looking remotely for technological civilizations, the minimum entry card is 20th century technology. We’ve had that kind of technology 100 years in a 10 billion-year-old galaxy, in which there are many stars quite a bit older than our sun.

WSJ: What do you think discovering intelligent life on another planet would mean for humanity?

Ms. Tarter: That we have a future. And second, I think discovering a signal, or even actually being actively involved in looking for a signal, has the effect of holding a mirror up to the planet, and making us see ourselves as all the same, all earthlings. It might help trivialize the differences among us.

WSJ: You had to suspend research temporarily in 2011 when funding fell through.

Ms. Tarter: Yeah, that was one of the dips in the roller coaster. We actually lost the secure federal funding back in 1993. We’ve been raising private funding ever since.

The past few years have been really dismal, as the economy has been in bad shape. We’re precarious. If we were in OK shape, I would have put this off longer because fundraising isn’t nearly as much fun as observing on the telescope.

[The] first target is $2 million a year. That’s $60 million in an endowment. That’s significant money, but it isn’t impossible.

WSJ: Does being based in the heart of Silicon Valley help with fundraising?

Ms. Tarter: That is a community that we have reached out to. When we lost the funding in 1993, [Hewlett-Packard Co. founders] Dave Packard, Bill Hewlett, [Intel Corp. co-founder] Gordon Moore, [Microsoft Corp. co-founder] Paul Allen, those kinds of folks provided a lot of funding that’s kept us going for the past couple of decades.

Write to Ben Worthen at

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1 Response to Retired Astronomer Jill Tarter, formerly of SETI, says she grew up “assuming that many of those stars up there in the sky were somebody else’s sun.”

  1. I have an issue with SETI. They need to expand their mission to include terrestrial search (earth, near earth, subterranean, underwater). In recent years I’ve come to disbelieve the sincerity of their organization by not even trying to drive out to reported known hot spots and just look up in the sky. They could raise millions and endow several chairs by just going low tech. SETI has become the high tech scientific equivalent of Project Blue Book. I’ll start trusting them again when I see them announce they plan a field trip with binoculars to half dozen viewing hot spots within 500 miles of their air-conditioned offices. Sorry but I no longer trust the system.

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