Women in Science: Jill Tarter, SETI, and Our Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Who was Jill Tarter? How did she contribute to the search for extraterrestrial life?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #245

Last week marked the release of Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence a book that explores the life of Dr. Jill Tarter including her experiences as a female engineer and astronomer in the 1960s as well as her efforts to drive the science and the technology (and the funding) for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (better known as SETI) toward the ultimate discovery – an intelligent civilization beyond our own.

I was lucky enough to get to chat with the author and science writer Sarah Scoles, whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discover, New Scientist, Wired, and the Washington Post, among others. Sarah, thank you for being here!

First, I have to boast that I’ve known Sarah for what I think is 10 years now. Our friendship got its start in the jungles of Puerto Rico at the Arecibo Observatory, the same spot where NASA’s first major SETI effort, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, began in 1992. Congress canceled that survey a year later but luckily they couldn’t put a stop to us.

We also met up more recently in West Virginia when I was running experiments at the 140-foot Green Bank Telescope where Sarah worked, a telescope which she describes in her book as “naval on the outside and steampunk on the inside”. Since astronomers are often short on funds, she let me stay with her at her farmhouse which just happened to be the “former bachelor pad” (as she calls it) of Frank Drake. Drake took the first step for modern SETI efforts by pointing a radio telescope at two stars similar to our Sun in 1960, an experiment known as Project Ozma. He is also well known for being the creator of the Drake Equation, an idea that is not so much a precise equation but an effort to break down into parts the odds us Earthlings would have to overcome in order to detect an extraterrestrial message.

So let’s talk about Making Contact

EE: What do you find most inspiring about Jill Tarter? Of all the people you could have chosen to write about, what made you choose her?

SS: Well, first, Jill Tarter started her career in astronomy when there weren’t so many female scientists at all and so she faced a lot of obstacles like being rejected for scholarships that were meant only for men, having to do all of her homework by herself because she wasn’t allowed on the boys’ side of Cornell campus. But she kept at it anyway and she’s tried in the years since to make astronomy, and science in general, better places for women. I think that’s inspiring.

And then there’s of course her science. She’s dedicated her life to this question, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ and that’s a pretty bold thing to do because we totally could be alone or we might never find out if we’re not. But I think it’s a really fundamental and really human question. And I first saw it played out when I watched the movie Contact, whose main character is partly based on Tarter. And that movie – and her character – taught me what radio astronomy was and that SETI was this actual scientific project that people were doing, and that there was this complicated woman at the head of it all. That really inspired me when I was young and I wanted to know what she and SETI were like in real life and not in a fictional movie or book.

EE: I imagine those reasons could be connected too. Jill Tarter was not afraid to be one of the few women in her science classes and so she was also not afraid to be asking tough questions that may not have an answer, like ‘are we alone?’

SS: Yeah I guess maybe once you learn to be one kind of outsider it’s not so hard to become another kind and just keep going.

EE: In the book, you explain in a very relatable way the techniques and telescopes used by SETI over the years to search for intelligent civilizations beyond Earth. You also discuss how the 50 years of SETI is an incredibly short time, cosmically speaking and that statistically, we might expect to wait 1000 years before finding anything. But how much of our search is hindered by our desire to focus mostly on other civilizations that resemble our own? Are our egos or, perhaps worse, a lack of imagination getting in the way?

SS: While I totally agree that it’s for lack of a better word “Earthist” to think that extraterrestrials live on planets like ours and communicate in the same ways as we do. The universe is a very large place and it’s very strange. Scientists often find things that surprise them and break “rules” that we thought were true about the universe. The way aliens are and the way they communicate could be one of those in terms of their biology, their methods of talking, or their habitats. But, I also think that if humans are going to do SETI we do have to start somewhere. We only have one example of life in the universe, and it’s right here on this planet with humans and elephants and hippopotami and everything else. We also only know of a few ways to communicate across thousands or millions of lightyears. So it makes sense to me to start with what we know and then expand on all that as we learn more about the universe and even about life on Earth. I’m going to steal a phrase that Jill says all the time which is: “We reserve the right to get smarter.” I think that that is a good way to think about it.


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.