The first scholarly paper on the search for extraterrestrial life was published in Nature in 1959, and ended like this: “The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search the chance of success is zero.”
Jill Tarter has spent more than 40 years working on that search. Tarter is an astronomer and co-founder of the SETI Institute in California, and, among many other things, the inspiration for Ellie Arroway, the alien-hunting protagonist of Carl Sagan’s 1985 classic science-fiction novel Contact. While big thinkers like Sagan were popularizing the mysteries of the universe on television, Tarter was working behind the scenes. She spent countless hours managing underfunded telescopes, fundraising for projects, publishing paper after paper, and trying to convince skeptics that the search for extraterrestrial life, this strange new field, was worth it.
And Tarter did it at a time when women were encouraged to do the opposite. “Why do you want to take calculus? You’re just going to get married and have babies,” a high-school guidance counselor told her. When she enrolled in Cornell University’s undergraduate engineering program in 1965, she was the only woman out of 300 students. On her first day of graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, the head of the astronomy department, a man, told Tarter and two other female students they were lucky “that all the smart men got drafted for Vietnam”—leaving space for them here.
Tarter, now in her seventies, retired a few years ago—but she’s not done with her search, says Sarah Scoles, a science journalist and author of an excellent new biography of Tarter, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. I interviewed Scoles about Tarter’s pioneering work, the challenge of asking unanswerable questions, and how we should think about SETI.
Read more at The Atlantic.