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Pointing the Telescopes

LaRae Meadows

September 7, 2012

An Interview with SETI Researcher Jill Tarter

Exoplanets panelJill Tarter (left) at SETIcon II.

Jill Tarter, PhD, may be best known as the inspiration for the main character in the movie Contact, but that should not be her legacy. Tarter is a pioneer in SETI research. She has lead teams of SETI researchers, helped develop the SETI Institute research, headed up the development of the Allen Telescope Array, and helped push the parameters of scientific research and engineering. She was elected a fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and is a TED Prize recipient. Tarter speaks gently, clearly, and with a slow cadence that assures that the listener hears her carefully chosen words; she also speaks frankly about issues that concern and inspire her.

Life as a professional alien hunter comes with landmines of alien abductees and alien mythology. A frustrated Tarter explained her feelings about probably the most famous of all UFOs: “Roswell is well sustained because the cash registers keep ringing in Roswell as long as that mythology is supported. Roswell was a crash, Roswell was a cover-up, Roswell had nothing to do with alien space craft. It did have everything to do with cold war politics and our trying to eavesdrop on the Soviet Union and wondering about their nuclear testing program. If you actually look at evidence that has been released under the Freedom of Information Act, you can quite clearly trace Project Mogul, a flying contraption of mylar and mylar precursor balloons that were big enough to hoist the equipment that was being used to monitor. The fact that this information is now public, but people simply say, ‘That is a cover up too,’ is frustrating but speaks to the profitability of keeping alive the pseudoscience of this whole event.”

Her frustration with the lack of skepticism is not limited to those who think aliens landed at Roswell. She is generally frustrated with what she perceives as our society’s willingness to let feel-good ideas gain hold without the support of evidence or even in the face of contradictory evidence, especially in our education system.

“Certainly in terms of the formal education program, we don’t emphasize [rational thought]. We tend to do the opposite. Children are naturally curious explorers; they’re natural scientists. Once they get into school, we educate that out of them. We don’t support their curiosity. We don’t reinforce tools of observation and deduction and correlation. We tell them stories. We tell them stories that make them comfortable. We, in life, most of our population, would like to believe what makes them feel good, rather than what is true.”

Tarter continued, “We shouldn’t be having state legislatures that try to by law define pi as 3 so it is easier for students to remember. That is actually something that came out of the Georgia State legislature as a proposal.”

Her concerns extend to the faith-based science curriculum proposed and used in many states in public science classrooms: “We run all kinds of risks if we allow faith-based science to replace the real thing and the risks we run are that things won’t work and we will not innovate the next advance and we will therefore be buying it from overseas from countries that have had a better track record of supporting critical thinking in their schools and in their populations. ...I think it is frighteningly dangerous.”

The mistakes in education by American schools are not limited to content. Tarter thinks they also lack an essential quality of math, science, and engineering: fun. “I think the things we really mess up on in our educational system, we talk about math and science and engineers and all those bright people and how they are going to do wonderful things, and we forget to tell the students it’s fun. Right? It’s amazing to come to work in the morning and be able to pose your own questions, as opposed to doing something your boss tells you you gotta do today whether you like it or not. A creative life as a scientist, or engineer or mathematician, is a very rewarding life. You have the potential to answer a question no one has ever figured out the answer to. If you find that to be fun, then that is what you ought to be doing.”

Tarter’s concerns aren’t just about the people trying to present antiscientific or pseudoscientific positions but also with people who back away from addressing them when they know better: “We have an overwhelming tendency to be polite to religious belief systems because in fact there are many people who are comforted by that, who feel supported by that, who are encouraged to be better human beings, more thoughtful, caring, and fair by religious structures, and that’s all wonderful. So we tend not to try to be impolite to people’s religious beliefs. When something is touted as science, when it is in fact not science, it does not matter if the basis is religious or anything else, it is not science and we ought to be willing to say so. We are seeing now, Richard Dawkins and his colleagues saying really startling and harsh things that most other people are unwilling to say but are nonetheless true.”

Richard Dawkins, a British zoologist, developer of Meme Theory, former Oxford Professor of Public Understanding of Science, and author of books like The God Delusion, is a staunch, verbal, and unabashed opponent to pseudoscientific positions, including creationism in schools and religious faith in general. Tarter’s comments seem to reference Dawkins’s willingness to directly attack religious belief. In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins wrote, “To claim equal time for creation science in biology classes is about as sensible as to claim equal time for the flat-earth theory in astronomy classes. Or, as someone has pointed out, you might as well claim equal time in sex education classes for the stork theory. It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).”

Perplexed by the fact that science has to keep addressing things like Roswell and creationism, Tarter said, “It’s this funny thing as a scientist, I can’t understand; once you have shown something to be flawed and fallacious, why that does not end the argument. Why it is that it can come back in a different guise, and not be recognized for being the same thing in different clothing.”

“The why in this case [of creationism], part of the answer is it’s well financed and it is difficult to deal with a well-financed campaign. We see that it’s growing. It’s not just denying evolution, we now see people denying climate change with the same strategies and tools used by those folks who originally denied evolution. That is, there is a way to do things, if you want to swing public opinion. There’s a very well understood way to orchestrate, to market, to sell that. We see the climate deniers using the same principles and tactics as evolution deniers. It isn’t going to get any better unless we say, ‘No, think about this; there is evidentiary proof for this and not that.’ ...I’m really unhappy that our population, particularly in this country [USA] seems to be so unwilling to think critically, to apply basic logic and the old ‘show me’ requirements. They seem to be willing to accept the most outrageous claims, amazing claims, astonishing claims, without saying where’s the evidence? Where’s the data?”

Tarter emphasized, “Science isn’t a popularity contest. Science isn’t what you want to believe. It isn’t what anyone believes. Science is what currently is the best explanation for the data and evidence that we have at hand.”

The prospects of critical thought are not much better when discussing aliens with the general population. “Forty percent of our population already thinks they’re already here,” Tarter assures us.

Twenty years of research into Earth’s extremophiles, life-forms that live in extreme environments, has changed the view of who “they” might be. “I think what the last two decades in research in extremophiles here on Earth [has taught us] that microbes deserve a lot more respect than we have ever given them in the past. When we think about life, we have had this ridiculous bias to think of human life as being some pinnacle of evolution. That is just bogus in terms of the reality of natural evolution. And so we are finding now that we are looking and asking the right questions, life has evolved to occupy environments that are incredibly hostile to human life. That’s the extremophile—living in extreme conditions.”

Extraterrestrial research was plagued with biases and assumptions that Tarter explains are only now being challenged: “When I was a graduate student, we were very clear that life would only exist between the boiling and freezing points of water. It would have to have a neutral, not too acidic, not too basic environment; pressure but not enormous pressure, pressure about like what we have on Earth; sunlight, we were told, sunlight was the engine of all life, powered all life on Earth. It couldn’t be too saline, couldn’t be too salty. We’ve just blown away all of those limits; we’ve expanded all those limits and hugely increased our understanding of the habitable real estate on our own planet.”

“With these wonderful forms of life that have evolved to love being in the boiling battery acid of a volcanic field, or deep in the ocean where the crust is splitting apart and super-heated steam and all these minerals are rushing out. And there is this incredible community of life, not all of it microbial. Tubeworms are big and they have microbes that they make a living on. There is huge diversity of life in these places. We’re finally beginning to give up this ascent of man idea and to prize and understand the amazing tenacity of life.”

“There’s far more potential than we ever understood on this planet, and I would be surprised if there weren’t even greater potential on another planet. I don’t know what they’re going to look like, [but] I don’t expect them to look like us.”

One of the most asked questions in discussions about aliens is Why would aliens come to Earth? Stephen Hawking, the director of research at the Institute for Theoretical Cosmology
at Cambridge, mathematician, and author of books like The Grand Design, thinks we should avoid extra extraterrestrial interactions: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach....If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans."

However, Tarter disagrees: “There’s this question of whether or not an alien technology that can actually get here, which by definition is far more advanced technologically than we are, whether they’re going to enslave us, take our resources and trash the place and trash us. The other alternative is that an advanced technology that can get here, is old, and they couldn’t have gotten to be old unless they managed to limit their population, utilize their resources wisely. If you take an old technology seriously, I think unless they are able to evolve beyond the aggression, which is probably part of the development of their intelligence, that they won’t survive to be old. They will do themselves in just as we seem to be showing lots of potential for doing. There may not be another century of humans unless something fundamentally changes here. So there are scenarios. The mean bastards who want to do us harm or the advanced technologies that don’t have any reason to do us harm and just might be curious about us.”

No matter the intention of the off-world visitors, there would be no shortage of ways that the interaction would change us. Tarter enthusiastically explains the huge leaps in understanding in biology that discovering life somewhere other than Earth could provide: “It would be hugely advanced if there were another biology that you could study to compare with biology as we know it; it would be a great step forward in trying to dissect what’s necessary from what’s contingent. We’ve only got one example. We can’t figure out whether it had to be that way or happened to be that way. Having a second example of biology will be incredibly important for understanding what is fundamental about life.”

The search for aliens in recent years has not been easy. Tarter won a TED Prize and consequently made their software code open source in a project called SETI Quest. Unfortunately, the attempts to reach out to the public and get assistance in the open source community failed to gain traction.

“We actually, after decades of doing our science in a silo, in splendid isolation, decided a couple of years ago as part of the TED Prize that we would open up what we’ve been doing. We would publish our legacy code as open source. We spent a lot of time cleaning it up, putting it out there, and trying to talk about it, give it enough publicity. We were hoping people would find clever things within it that they could use for other purposes, or that they could take pieces of it that we hadn’t optimized in terms of efficiency and help make them better. In general it was such a big piece of code, and the barrier of entry—the kind of machine and installation you had to do—was too high and we didn’t attract a very large community....They needed a great deal of effort from my team, which is pretty small. We can support some but we couldn’t do all the support that was needed for an open source project. In the end, it didn’t make a lot of sense for us to enter the open source community because we couldn’t garden it, we couldn’t support it with our in-house efforts.”

Like so many pure science projects, funding has become an Olympic-sized hurdle for SETI. In fact, it has become such a hurdle that Tarter is retiring from research to dedicate all her time to finding and raiding willing wallets. “We have done amazingly well at times. Right now is not one of the amazingly well times. ...We are all about funding problems. That’s why I’m retiring from being the director of the Center of SETI Research and keeping my Oliver Chair hat so that I can concentrate on doing the fundraising. We have been on a fundraising roller coaster from the beginning.”

“It right now is pretty desperate in terms of finding funding from the public sector, but in fact I think we can succeed. There is a small cadre of very knowledgeable fundraising individuals who think, as I do, that SETI is too important to fail. We are going to take this opportunity to focus on establishing an endowment because in the end that’s probably the only rational fundraising vehicle for this kind of research that may be multi-generational. With federal or state funding it can go away in any particular year. With individual annual funding, that can be hugely affected by economy. Universities have shown us that the endowment structure is something that can be used to continue focused application toward specific projects. That’s what we need to do for SETI.”

If aliens had visited, Tarter thinks things would be financially very different for SETI. She thinks the myths about SETI covering up alien visits are silly for that exact reason: “I wish I were, funding would be a lot more secure if we could actually trot out aliens and say, ‘see, they’re really here,’ but no.”

For Tarter, funding has not been the only hurdle to success. When she was a student, she was the only woman in her freshman engineering class at Cornell, a class of three hundred students. The problems were not just a lack of support of other women, but systemic sexism that limited her advantages. For example, women were expected to comply with a curfew that men were not expected to comply with, limiting her ability to participate in study groups. “All I can say is, it was really bad when I started,” sighed Tarter.

Even still, when asked if it is a degrading question to ask her about being a woman in science she proudly answered, “In fact, it can be. Women are facing a backlash from, ‘well you’re in your position because you are a woman.’”

Tarter was not advocating a completely gender blind approach because the disparity between men and women still exists in the science, math, and engineering fields: “The numbers are getting better, but they’re not good enough, and they won’t get good enough unless we actively work at that.”

The mountains women had to and still have to overcome are not always conscious. Tarter says, “When I got my degree, I thought, ‘well, this was hard and I made it so when I get out there I’m gonna show the world that I’m smart, I’m bright, I can do this. There’s no reason to stereotype and say women can’t do this.’ I so poorly understood the internal biases that we have about selecting and working with colleagues that reflect ourselves. All the other ‘ourselves’ out there were male.”

The biases were so pervasive that Tarter realized she herself had bought into them and realized how much change was necessary. “I had a unique experience that a little time after I got my PhD, I was invited to participate in a meeting in Washington, DC, and I walked into a room full of eighty women. Bright, smart engineers and scientists and mathematicians. I have never walked into a room of only women. I was used to being the only woman in a room full of men. It was an enormous eye-opening experience for me. It made me understand how much I bought into being one of the boys, how much I tended to denigrate the work of the few other women that I saw. It was all bad cultural bias, that had to go, and wasn’t going to go unless we worked on it. So I changed my tune and didn’t decide, good women role models were enough. They’re good to have. In fact, you aren’t going to make a lot of progress without having those because young women have to be able to see, ‘oh I could do that’ but you have to do a lot more. You have to really encourage.”

“I don’t think we encourage math, science, and engineering for either boys or girls. They [schools] are being more mindful of the women. Whether we are doing it right or not, I don’t know. If you find that to be fun, then that is what you ought to be doing. We ought to let people of both sexes know that it’s fun and say, you can do this too. If you want to do this, you can.”

Life isn’t all about alien life for Tarter, “I like to create things. I toyed with architecture for a while.”

Her brush with cinema has left the movie bug in her, “I had this really interesting experience when I met Jodie Foster and the movie team for Contact and worked behind the scenes there. There is an incredible amount of technology that goes into making a movie. I was fascinated. I thought, ‘gee, if I wasn’t doing my job, this might be a really interesting job.’ I’ll just throw this out there, Zemeckis [Robert Zemeckis, producer of Contact] changed the ending of the book to facilitate a sequel, and set it up. There hasn’t been a Contact 2. I think that would be a really good project. Anyone who’s into screenplays out there, and likes this kind of thing, where do we take that nineteen hours of static that’s recorded on that headset. Something happened right? What was it really? Where does it go from there? Particularly if we could get Jodie Foster to revive the role.”

Even though Tarter has interests broader than science, she isn’t willing to give up on larger goals for scientific advancement. She wants the choir of people who see the value of science to take active roles in the future of science literacy. “First of all, I’m delighted there is a choir. Secondly, it isn’t big enough. Thirdly, they ought to be seeking out opportunities to their kids that make a difference. Finding and helping teachers who want to make a difference for kids, who want to encourage that. Get into the classroom. Get involved in the formal education system. Volunteer in ways that you can interact with young people because it’s really critically important....We should strive to have a scientifically literate population.”


Dr. Tarter’s TED Prize Talk:

SETI Quest:

Donate to SETI Endowment:


Robert Zemeckis

LaRae Meadows

LaRae Meadows is bent on investigating important topics, contorting herself to discover new views, and sharing her discoveries. Her dangerous lack of self-preservation makes writing on controversial topics fun for her. She has a background in legislative and policy advocacy for foster children in California and owns a small business.