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Jill Tarter Has Just Spent 35 Years Leading the Hunt for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Interview

Jill Tarter has been leading the hunt for extra-terrestrial life at SETI for the past 35 years. On May 22, she announced that she would be stepping down, leaving a search that's become more helpful that ever since the discoveries of thousands of...

by Michael Byrne
Jun 5 2012, 1:00pm

Suppose that your job was to lead mankind’s hunt for extra-terrestrial life. Just think about that: you get up, have your coffee, and start parsing radio signals from hundreds of light years away for signs of intelligence (or, you know, delegating that while you probably deal with a lot fundraising and not-so-exciting type stuff).

This has been Jill Tarter’s role for the past 35 years as director of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, the planet’s primary organization dedicated to one of science’s most illustrious tasks. On May 22, she announced that she would be stepping down, leaving a search that’s become all the more exciting and relevant than ever since the discoveries of thousands of possibly habitable exoplanets as well as extremophile life that can survive in practically any sort of environmental hell you can soak them in. Tarter’s succeeded by physicist Gerry Harp, and the former will be honored in a banquet later this month at the second ever SETIcon, which will take place June 22 through 24 in Santa Clara, Calif. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to talk to Tarter last week.

So what does someone do after being in charge of looking for aliens at the largest such project on Earth?

[Raise money for SETI]. Just one Senator was able to cut off funds for SETI [in 2011] and philanthropic fundraising has been up and down. And now given the economy, our partners at UC Berkeley last year had to back out of the telescope. I’ve got to get money in the door.

Where are the best sources for reliable, apolitical SETI funding?

Ultimately, the only vehicle that I can find that can provide stable funding is an endowment. Universities have used that for a long time. The problem is, of course, that we don’t have any alumni. We don’t have a captive audience. But what we do have is intriguing to almost everyone. I’m hoping that its appeal will substitute for the affiliation of a specific group. And the thing that we need to do and the thing that we haven’t done is make this global, to make sure that the funding comes from around the world. This is not a California project; if we detect a signal it will be the property of humankind. So everyone around the planet should have an opportunity to contribute.

Are there other SETI-like projects elsewhere in the world?

There are other programs around the world. They tend to be smaller. The real problem is that in terms of donations, the tax laws in the US have been far more favorable to philantropic causes than elsewhere in the world.

Cost-wise, how does SETI compare to other big science projects in the world?

Annually, it’s not much. Right now, what I like to bring in the door is about $2 million a year. But that’s this year and the next year and the year after that. The cumulative number something that you can’t ignore. It’s significant — you’re going to be talking about trying to raise an endowment that’s $60 million.

Microbes are finally getting the respect they deserve; we’re finally getting away from the ascent of man and this ridiculously flawed misconception that evolution led to humans as the pinnacle.

How have your feelings about the search changed since you started at SETI in 1977, and now?

During my career there have been really two game-changers. One is exoplanets and the other is extremophiles. When I started, planets were a good theory, but we didn’t really know of any beyond our solar system. Now, we have thousands. That really does change the way we do our search. We’re targeting places where we know there are planets. Before we picked stars where we thought there could be planets that could be old enough and stable enough for evolution to have produced technological civilizations. Now we can pick stars where we absolutely know there are planets. And that’s a big change.

The other thing is extremophiles. Here at SETI, though the name is SETI, we have three centers. The center of research that I directed, SETI; the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life In the Universe that is directed by David Morrison; and the Center for Public Outreach directed by Enda DeVore. Most the people here at the institute are not actually at SETI, they’re astrobiologists and educators. So we have the bulk of our scientists involved in studying extremophiles and extreme habitats on this planet as analogs for life, life of any kind, elsewhere.

Microbes are finally getting the respect they deserve; we’re finally getting away from the ascent of man and this ridiculously flawed misconception that evolution led to humans as the pinnacle. We’re just one tiny branch on a really vast bushy tree where evolution has allowed for organisms that can be suburbly adapted for the most outragous conditions. We find life in boiling battery acid, at the bottom of the ocean, in the cooling waters of nuclear reactors. We find life in all of these places that when I was a student I was told can’t be. But it does. Potentially out there in the cosmos is a lot of habitable real estate than we first thought and the question is, Is it inhabited? That’s what we’re working on here at the SETI Institute.

We find life in boiling battery acid, at the bottom of the ocean, in the cooling waters of nuclear reactors.

These developments have came in a way that does appear to make the universe appear to be more biofriendly. One can imagine that what we’ve learned about the cosmos could have gone the other way. We could have learned that gee, this star is really strange because it has planets and none of the others do, or that the limitations on the environments that could support life were even narrower than once thought. But that’s not at all what happened. It’s gone in the other direction. That’s all the more reason to ask now, are we alone in the cosmos?

Can you talk some about the mindset involved in doing this work? Are you constantly expecting to find something, or is it the opposite, or…?

Nobody in this project comes to work everyday thinking I’m going to get a signal today. Because there’s a good chance you’ll be dissappointed. That’s not a realistic way to pursue a career. Instead, everybody gets out of bed thinking, how can we make the search better?, using these rapidly improving technologies and computational abilities — to do more of a search, to look in different ways, to look in places we haven’t looked before, to do the search better. If you approach it that way, then it can be extremely satisfying.

We’ve now been at this long enough that we can thoroughly appreciate the exponential gains that we’re making in our ability to search, compared to what we were able to do when Frank Drake started this in 1960. The search is at least 14 orders of magnitude more capable. Our minds are constantly turning, wow if we add GPUs to our CPUs we can get additional searching in the same amount of time, or what if we add correlators and image spectrometers to our searches?.

We started over the last decade looking for optical signals, looking for very short, less than a nanosecond, laser pulses. Should we be doing neutrino settings? Hmmm maybe, it’s a bit marginal, but at least we’re talking to the folks at IceCube. We’re thinking of other ways to do the search that are enabled, inevitably, by new technology. [Also:] Including our astronomical colleagues that are developing new ways to look at the cosmos. Like, if something strange shows up, don’t say it’s a glitch or throw it away. Let’s think about whether it could be the consequences of someone else’s astronomical engineering program out there. I talk to the Kepler institute folks. We think about the light curves, the high time resolution light curves, as a planet approaches the disc of a star, ingresses, and then leaves the edge of the disc, having transitted the star, on its way out. There’s information at that ingress and degress point that tell us if the object was actually round. And the IAU says that a planet has got to be round by definition. What if it’s some great huge artificial Venetian blind or triangle, some artificial transit as a way of displaying the presence of technology over very large distances.

How do you measure success at SETI? I assume not by finding aliens …

Well our metric is essentially stars times megahertz, essentially the number of directions we’ve looked times the amount of the microwave spectrum we’ve been able to observe. The space we’re looking in is nine-dimensional, so that doesn’t actually cover all possibilities. We have laid out a program over the next couple of years to search systematically the Kepler worlds and other things found with ground-based studies over the entire microwave window from one to 10 MHz. We can see how much progress we’re making in those terms.

In terms of what might be required [in the future], we don’t know. First of all, we don’t have the answer to the question. We might be the only ones [in the universe]. We might practically be the only ones. We might be isolated in time as well as space. And there might not be any other technologies for us to detect. And if there are, we can’t neccessarily guarantee that what we’re doing is the right thing. Some other technology that our species hasn’t invented might be the right one. There’s not much we can do about that except to survive long enough to invent it. We always reserve the right to get smarter and to do new things, as well as the old things. We have metrics; we publish papers; we publish papers on negative results; we publish papers on the technologies we’ve developed. And we move on to the next stage.

What if it’s some great huge artificial Venetian blind or triangle, some artificial transit as a way of displaying the presence of technology over very large distances.

I was hoping you could outline your argument against evil aliens for us.

Before I came into the office, I was reading this really sick special section in the latest Science on human conflict. The jury is still out on that, on whether humans are becoming kinder or not. It’s really hard to know what humans will look like. Here we’re trying to talk about the characteristics of an advanced technology, a technology that is postulated to be able to come here from somewhere along the way. We can’t do that. That’s technology we don’t have, but they can so we presume that they’re older. How can we predict the evolutionary path of other species when we can’t predict our own. Now, is Ray Kurzweil right, will there be a singularity? Will machines become smarter than humans? Will there be some shift in biological intelligence to machine intelligence? And what does that mean?

I don’t know, but what I would like to argue is that while in fact Stephen Hawking might be right and we should be very afraid if they show up on our doorstep because it didn’t work out for well for the natives when Columbus showed up. But what I would like to argue is that an older technology has to have evolved past the aggresive tendencies which were probably responsible for it developing intelligence in the first place, in order to get old. [You must be able to] manage your population, manage and husband your resources. I don’t think you get there unless you outgrow aggression. That’s just my hunch.

If they can get here, they’re going to make the rules of the encounter.

On our planet we don’t really have any data that’s overwhelming in one way or another. It’s intriguing to me that we don’t know. The option that we are becoming kinder is quite credible, as well as data that show the opposite. If they can get here, they’re going to make the rules of the encounter. I personally have a hard time understanding how you can have the technology to get here and need anything that we have, and not be able to manufacture it yourself. We also tend to have this big wet biology model of them coming here; it might in fact be nanoprobes with advanced intelligence that show up. What are their motivations? Really hard to know.

My favorite extraterrestrial is Fred Hoyle’s Big Black Cloud, simply because it’s so different and imaginative. It’s just a plasma cloud that’s intelligent and it’s hard for us to interact with it.

Big Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle, 1957.

Not sure I know that one

It probably is older than you are. It’s worth a read.

That makes me think of Solaris. That sort of sentient ocean-planet. Is there one thing in your life that sent you down this path?

Yes, I understood how to program an old PDP computer. I learned that my first year of graduate school, and by the time I finally finished graduate school it was an obsolete piece of equipment that was given to Steve Boyer, an X-ray astronomer that had figured out that he could use the University of California’s radio telescope in a kind of piggyback fashion so that he could do SETI at the same time they were doing radio astronomy. It was a very clever idea. He wanted to do a SETI project, he didn’t have any money, and someone gave him this old computer and oh Jill’s still here, she used to program it. He came and recruited me and I got hooked.

Can you talk a bit about SETIcon? Happening later this month …

If [folks are] in the area I think they’d have a really great time. It’s a place where we bring together imagination and science. So we have real astronauts and Hollywood’s astronauts; we have lots of scientists working on detecting exoplanets and we have lots of science-fiction writers, demos and an opportunity to interact with all of these great people. We did it once before and everybody had a great time.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

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