A Career Waiting for E.T. to Phone

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Elwood H. Smith – Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company


Jill Tarter once complained to me that she had no poetry in her soul.

It was 1990, and NASA was getting ready to undertake a survey of the 1,000 nearest stars, looking for radio signals from aliens. Dr. Tarter, then 46 and a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., was in charge of it.

“I can’t say what they will be like,” she sighed, when asked to speculate about the nature and motives of these putative aliens.

She was far too busy worrying about how to recognize a signal, not to mention how to avoid being fooled by the kid next door or a stray weather or spy satellite.

For some three decades, Dr. Tarter, now 68, has been the person most likely to be the first to know if we make contact with E.T. — the one who will sound the alarm, spreading the news that We Are Not Alone.

Now Dr. Tarter is stepping away from the radio telescope, retiring from her post as the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View. SETI, of course, refers to the search for intelligent life in the universe.

“The SETI Institute has a good pension plan — we’re grown-ups,” she said by telephone recently.

There will be a dinner and speeches in her honor at SETIcon, a gathering of astronomers, astronauts and science-fiction fans in Santa Clara this weekend.

“I hope it’s not a roast,” she said.

Dr. Tarter never did get to deliver the news that we have company. But this, she contends, is not disappointing. What would be disappointing is if humans were not able to search for their neighbors at all.

Over the decades she has brooked few distractions from that quest.

When a reporter (O.K., it was me) once described Dr. Tarter’s blond hair tied with a pink ribbon into a ponytail, she cut her hair short.

When the SETI researchers got a new radio telescope for their search — the Allen Array, at the University of California’s Hat Creek Observatory in Northern California — she got a pilot’s license so she could make the trip from her Berkeley home in one hour instead of six.

Jodie Foster’s performance as an astronomer who does make contact, in the movie “Contact,” was largely based on time she spent with Dr. Tarter.

Three times, Dr. Tarter says, she has thought we had made contact, but hard-boiled caution prevailed. Once was in France in 1980, when she and her team had to wait for a suspicious source to pass over their telescope, and Dr. Tarter was afraid to go to sleep. “I had to stay up for three days, afraid my French colleagues were going to call up Le Monde,” she said.

Another time, while she was observing with a radio telescope in West Virginia, Dr. Tarter went so far as to alert colleagues in California of an auspicious signal — and then forgot to call back when she discovered it was a satellite.

None of them was E.T. calling. Each one was another way to be fooled, another addition to Dr. Tarter’s checklist, another necessary step along a path that may or may not have an ending.

It was in the 1970s while she was pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, and raising a daughter that she first heard of SETI: the idea that lonely species could bridge the voids between stars with radio waves. She fell in love with it after reading a NASA report on the subject edited by Barney Oliver, the former head of research at Hewlett-Packard. Reassuringly, Dr. Oliver was a crusty gear head who had made himself and others rich, not the sort of man given to romantic fantasies. Hard-boiled, you might say.

Dr. Tarter said she considered herself lucky to have been born when the issue of life in the universe had become a scientific instead of a philosophical or religious one. “For the very first time we had technology where we could do an experiment instead of asking priests and philosophers,” she said.

“It might take multiple generations,” she added, “but there were no reasons not to start with the tools I have.”

The NASA survey that Dr. Tarter led began with great fanfare on Columbus Day of 1992, the 500th anniversary of the great explorer’s arrival in the Americas — a day that she called the high point of her life, a monument to human curiosity. “I felt so proud,” she recalled.

A year later it was over, canceled at the behest of a senator, Richard Bryan of Nevada, who was skittish about “little green men.”

With help from Silicon Valley friends, Dr. Tarter and her colleagues at the institute took the search private and, over time, began to expand it farther out in space, to stars identified by the Kepler spacecraft as having planets.

Last year, however, the recession left the University of California with no money to operate Hat Creek Observatory, and the Allen Array had to be shut down, a moment that Dr. Tarter called the low point of her career.

“To have built that beautiful instrument and then have to turn it off, that hurt,” she said.

The Allen Array is now back on the cosmic search job, thanks to a deal to share observing time on it with the Air Force. But to Dr. Tarter the whole affair was a wake-up call: SETI needs a permanent endowment. “It’s on my to-do list,” she said last winter.

So she is not moving far, just down the hall, to concentrate on fund-raising. It’s time, she said, to go calling on Silicon Valley 2.0.

The search, she explained, is “too long and too difficult. If we want to attract the best and brightest, we want to be able to say, ‘It’s O.K., they can plan on raising a family.’ ”

Once upon a time it was a crazy, romantic idea, perhaps nothing better than wishful thinking. It still is, but it makes us feel bigger and more grown-up just to try. And now it comes with grown-up benefits, like a retirement plan.

There might or might not be poetry in her soul, but Dr. Tarter’s whole career has been a poem.

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Written by physicsgg

June 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm

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