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Meet the Woman Who Pioneered Our Search for Aliens

When Jill Tarter enrolled in the engineering program at Cornell, she was the only woman in her classes. Since then, the radio astronomer has become the public face of the systematic search for extraterrestrial life—and had Jodie Foster play her in a...
Photo courtesy of Jill Tarter

I've known of Jill Tarter since my earliest university classes. The real-life radio astronomer who served as inspiration for Jodie Foster's character, Ellie Arroway, in the 1997 film Contact, Tarter is the public face of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Interviewing her requires carefully concealing fangirlish squeals from the physics student I used to be; in certain circles, she is an icon. As part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Tarter was one of the first scientists to embark on an ongoing, methodical search for extraterrestrial intelligence, using an enormous telescope array to scan the skies for alien signals.


"I am the chief cheerleader for SETI and the Allen Telescope Array," Tarter tells me over the phone, introducing herself with practiced flair. Her voice is earthy. She's careful when she speaks, drawing out the spaces between words, and her descriptions are a mix of metaphor and jargon, technically precise while still accessible. The overall impact is grounded and reassuring. It's easy to understand why she's such an effective advocate for the SETI Institute; her solid presence—and impressive academic background—counters ridicule about the search for "little green men."

Read more: Talking to a Leading UFO Researcher About Alien Megastructures

Tarter was an only child, taking after both her parents. "All of the pictures that we have of me as a young child are just full of fish and fancy dresses together," Tarter says. "I would be in this white, starched, ironed pinafore dress with little white socks, Mary Janes, and ribbons in my hair and holding this great big fish that I had caught with my father."

When she was eight years old, her father tried to push her to stop mixing rugged outdoors hobbies and fashion. Perched on the washing machine to be at eye level, she remembers bursting out, "What do you mean, I have to choose?" She wore him down with a mix of protests and ("highly manipulative") tears. Tarter fondly recalls her father conceding, "If you're willing to work very hard, there's no reason you can't do anything you decide you want to do." Taking him up on the challenge, she replied, "I want to be an engineer."


Photo courtesy of Jill Tarter

The path was long and hard. When Tarter attended Cornell University for her bachelor's degree in the early 1960s, she was the only woman in a class of 300 engineers, and the dorms were gender-segregated. She now laughs that the men's dorms were tucked against the Engineering Quad, but her home was over a mile away—as far across campus as it could possibly get. Adding to the aggravation, campus policy required she wear a skirt as soon as she crossed over the lake. "In the winter of Ithaca, when something is falling out of the sky every day, and it's cold and uncomfortable, you had to wear a skirt and make that trek," Tarter says. "It was highly ridiculous."

Students were locked in their dorms each night from 10 PM until 6 AM the next morning. "We were 'protecting' our women," Tarter explains. The men used this time to collaborate on homework, splitting the problem sets, but as the only woman in her program, Tarter "sat in splendid isolation and did them all by myself."

(While the locked doors may have indirectly helped her hone her physics skills, they were still frustrating. For one thing, Tarter loved to ice skate, and living next to a frozen lake all winter should have been ideal. Instead, "I'd be awake and ready to go," she remembers, "and the doors are still locked!")

Photo courtesy of Jill Tarter

Tarter has seen enormous gains for women in science since she was in college—along with a purely numerical improvement, we have a diversity of incredibly successful role models who challenge the stereotypes of what a scientist looks like. Undergraduate science classes approach gender parity, though the numbers drop in graduate school and while climbing the ranks as a professional scientist.


For a long time, Tarter hoped that was enough. "I thought that all the old bastards died off," she confesses. "Recent events have indicated that it hasn't perhaps changed as much as I thought it had." Her voice loses its characteristic vigor; she did her graduate studies at UC Berkeley, and she still lives nearby. When we spoke, the university was still shaken by a series of sexual harassment allegations and lackluster administrative response, including revelations about decades of abuse by noted exoplanet researcher Geoff Marcy.

"Men of power—people of power, but statistically that's overwhelmingly men—prey on people who are not very powerful," Tarter says. "People who depend on them." In graduate school, that dependence between professor and student lasts a long time, with potential career-shaping ramifications. To see graduate students at her former university being preyed on by their advisors? "It's really a bad situation." (When Tarter went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, there were only a handful of other women in her class. On the first day, the chairman invited them into his office. "He welcomed us warmly," she recalls, "and told us how lucky we were that all the smart men had been drafted to Vietnam.")

"It isn't as rosy as I thought it was," she says. "People are still keeping secrets. Transparency is the only thing that's going to turn this around."

He welcomed us warmly and told us how lucky we were that all the smart men had been drafted to Vietnam.


Tarter's irritation with school extended beyond casual sexism, extending to the process of education itself. Her classes turned her love for engineering into rote repetition. "I really hated that the ideal solution to a new problem was to use a known solution," Tarter remembers. "There was no incentive to innovate." This was particularly frustrating as she'd fought so hard to develop excellent problem-solving skills while locked in isolation in her dorm. "I wanted to use them!"

This impatient curiosity is what tempted her to begin risking her career to search for aliens. While at UC Berkeley, Tarter was initially lured to to a small research collaborative hidden away on campus that would grow into the SETI Institute. The head researcher needed Tarter to program an obsolete PDP-8/S computer. He also gave her a copy of "Project Cyclops," a NASA paper summarizing preliminary ideas of how to detect artificial signals from space. She was hooked. "For millennia, we've asked the priests and philosophers what we should believe about whether there's life out there," Tarter says. "Suddenly, we've got some tools! Telescopes, computers, and engineers who can try to find out."

Searching for aliens is one of the most creative problems in science. Astronomy, and the tools to go with it, is focused on scanning the sky for signals created by nature. Looking for extraterrestrials is something else entirely. "We're looking for something that's obviously engineered," explains Tarter. "That requires a different set of parameters." The technology to approach that problem is wide open, "with lots of opportunity to do new things that nobody else is going to be doing."


Tarter programmed the computer, and refocused on her postdoctoral studies. But she kept thinking about Project Cyclops, which took its name from the proposed telescope array that would then be used to search for aliens. Tarter physically tracked down the head of the Committee on Interstellar Communication on campus, and told him, "I've got more than 40 hours in a week. If you'd like some help, I'd like to volunteer."

Jodie Foster playing Ellie Arroway, the character based on Tarter, in "Contact"

The search has dramatically transformed from those early days. "Over my career, there have been two extraordinary game changers," Tarter says. "One is exoplanets. The other is extremophiles."

When Tarter was a student, our theory of planet formation relied on a complex dance of binary star systems interacting in just the right way to produce hypothetical alien worlds. If the theory were correct, planets would be rare. But with the discovery of more and more of exoplanets—or planets outside our solar system—we are realizing that planets are a natural product of star formation. In the new theory, we think leftover gas and dust are condensing into planets around nearly every star. "We now know this extraordinary fact that there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way galaxy," Tarter says.

The acknowledgment of all those worlds shifted our strategy for searching for aliens. If planets are everywhere, why not just look at the nearest stars and assume they've got planets around them?


The other big change is in our understanding of where life can thrive. "What I learned as a student was that life had to exist within a very narrow range of parameters," Tarter says. "Between the boiling and freezing point of water; where there was enough sunlight but not very high energy radiation; pH not too basic and not too acidic; and all that." But then we started finding life in all sorts of hostile places—the boiling acid of deep-sea vents, within the Earth's crust, even in the cooling ponds of nuclear power plants. "There is certainly a lot more potentially habitable real estate out there that we had ever conceived early on in the SETI project," says Tarter.

Photo courtesy of the SETI Institute

For the next generation of scientists eager to look for life beyond Earth, Tarter advises teamwork and resilience.

"Don't stay alone" is her immediate advice. Studying locked in her dorm robbed Tarter of the experience of working with others. "I was never a part of a team until I had to lead one!" she says. "If you learn early how to work with others that have skills that are different—sometimes complementary, sometimes overlapping—you can use that to make an end product even more brilliant." If you've found a strong network, Tarter advises, you'll have people that have your back.

Because you also "need to grow a thick skin," says Tarter. But not everything should be ignored. "If something happens, don't be quiet," she continues. "This is the hard part."

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More broadly, Tarter believes it's critical to think about systemic barriers against diversity in science. "You have to be thoughtful about it," Tarter starts, then pauses. "You actually literally have to think a lot about it. You need to take deliberate action, not just figure it's all going to go away." This is hard-won wisdom. "I did that a little bit," Tarter admits. "My generation struggled a lot to get where we wanted to go. We were just happy to be there and enjoy our success."

Getting through school and into the professional workforce was an enormous filtering process, and she thought it would surely be enough. "We would be the exemplars," Tarter says she had assumed. "We were just going to change the world's opinions by how well we did and not being denied." She laughs remembering her naïvety. "It didn't work so well. It didn't work so well at all."

Photo courtesy of Jill Tarter