Jill Tarter, inspiration for the movie Contact, tells us about her journey to SETI

Illustration for article titled Jill Tarter, inspiration for the movie emContact/em, tells us about her journey to SETI

Jill Tarter is the holder of the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI, and the inspiration for Jodi Foster's character in the movie Contact. When we asked her what turned her towards the sciences, she gave us one of the most epic answers we've ever received.

The SETI Institute is one of those rare institutions that mixes soaring ambitions with hard-nosed science. The Institute has been looking for extraterrestrial life for decades. And not just microbial life, but actual intelligent beings who are looking to talk to us. SETI does this by using radio and optical telescopes, pursuing wildly diverse areas of study, and employing some of the most dedicated people in the world. One of those people is Jill Tarter, who is one of the rare researchers who has spent her whole career looking for intelligent alien life. She's directed many different projects, and contributed greatly to our understanding of the universe. Even putting aside the fact that the main character of Contact was based on her, her job sounds like science fiction. How does someone even come to have such an ambitious and idealistic career? We asked her what it was that caused her to take this path, and she very kindly answered us.

Illustration for article titled Jill Tarter, inspiration for the movie emContact/em, tells us about her journey to SETI

Tarter said:

I spent my youngest years hunting, fishing, camping and generally being my dad's 'son'. When I was eight, my mother had a talk with my dad and he came to tell me that I should spend more time with my mother learning how to do 'girl' things. I was incensed to think that I had to make a choice and couldn't do both. So after lots of talk and some tears (I already knew that trick for winning over my dad), he agreed that if I was willing to work hard enough I could do anything I wanted. I declared that I wanted to be an engineer. When my dad died a few years later, that decision was solidified and I became stubborn enough and tough enough (with my mother's help) to get a degree in Engineering Physics and be on the Dean's List the whole time.

That sounds like a happy ending to us, but for Tarter it was a time to take a look at the hard work she'd already put into her education, and realize that it still hadn't gotten her where she wanted to be.

At that time, this particular engineering program was much in need of an overhaul and I didn't find it nearly as exciting as I perceive engineering to be today. So I took stock, realized that I had acquired excellent problem solving skills and just needed to find interesting problems to solve. I stayed around taking graduate classes in all kinds of different sciences, until I encountered a class in star formation. That was it! I went on to get a PhD in astronomy/astrophysics. For my thesis I modeled brown dwarfs (tiny, failed-stars that it took another 25 years to discover) and then during a postdoc at NASA Ames I sidestepped into SETI because I had the right computer skills, and because I was already comfortable with the idea of looking for something that might take a very long time to find. For me SETI represented an opportunity to move beyond the previous millennia of asking the priests and philosophers what we should believe, and to begin a scientific exploration to find out what the answer actually is to that fundamental human question 'Are we alone?' I was in the right place, with a collection of all the right skills, and I've been hooked ever since.


So we have an amazing mix of the scientific and the epic. In this case, it wasn't just a decision. It was a long journey, with lots of different experiences along the way, to find a true vocation in the sciences.

Top Image: Jim Murphy


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Annalee Newitz

I'm so glad she knew that the talk about "doing girl things" was totally crap. I can remember my dad trying to have a similar awkward conversation with me, at my mother's request. The outcome was pretty much the same. Why should my gender have anything to do with what I'm interested in?