An interview with alien hunter Jill Tarter

Director of Center for SETI Research retires to focus on finding funds to continue the hunt for extraterrestrial life

After 35 years of eavesdropping on the stars, hoping to hear the intelligent murmurings of an extraterrestrial civilization, Jill Tarter, the SETI Institute’s lead alien hunter is hanging up her receiver and retiring as director of the Center for SETI Research.

Jill Tarter is retiring from the Center for SETI Research, but she isn’t giving up the quest to find extraterrestrial life. Seth Shostak, SETI Institute

But she’s not quitting the quest.

Instead of querying the heavens for signs of life, Tarter will query life on Earth for the funds needed to keep Earth’s ears online. “We’re just going to make this a crusade,” she said in an interview with astronomy reporter Nadia Drake. Read the interview below.

Why are you retiring as director of the Center for SETI Research?

Because funding is critical. Last year’s hibernation of the Allen Telescope Array was a real wake-up call, and it indicated just how fragile our funding situation is. We now have SRI [a nonprofit, independent research institute] as a new partner for operating that array, which is great. So that’s stable, but now I’ve got to make sure that the money comes in the door for the SETI research with the telescope. And that’s just not happening the way we’ve been going at it, so we’re going to try and to do something different. That means my focusing on it completely.

What are you going to try and do that’s different?

We’re going to put together a group of people who are passionate about SETI the way I am, who feel that SETI is just too important to fail, and who have experience and expertise in raising funds for nonprofits. We’re just going to make this a crusade. The idea is stabilize the immediate funding, then go for an endowment.

Who are you going to be looking for, as donors?

We have to start with private donors because that’s the quickest way to get this implemented. I think that SETI is intrinsically a global concern, and we’ve not been successful in the past at finding ways to attract global supporters. But it should be doable, and ultimately there needs to be a huge mix of private, institutional, corporate and governmental funding for this. I think the program has such appeal that we can get there. If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t be doing it in this economy, but I don’t have that choice. So we’re working on it.

At the moment, it is possible to write a small individual research grant to NASA for SETI — which was not the case for many, many years — but there’s no opportunity to go there for systemic program funding. We’re reluctant to again be in the position of relying solely on federal funding because we have experienced the incredible fragility of that particular funding model, which a single politician can maneuver to cancel.

Can you explain a little bit about the federal funding quagmire — what’s the history there?

SETI was a NASA project that was developed through the 1970s and 1980s within the life sciences arm of NASA research. During that time, SETI became a target for Sen. [William] Proxmire [D-Wis.] and the Proxmire Golden Fleece Award [which Proxmire bestowed upon his picks for the best examples of wasteful government spending], and he deleted the funds for SETI in the fiscal year ’82 budget.  NASA reinstated the funding in 1983, and Carl Sagan enlightened the senator about the benefits of the SETI program, and Proxmire did not raise more objections. In the early 1990s, more maneuvering with Congress led to the transition of SETI into the space sciences arm of the house.

In 1992, on Columbus Day — the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ exploratory expedition — we launched the High Resolution Microwave Survey at Arecibo Observatory and at NASA’s Deep Space Network complex of tracking stations in southern California.

We were really excited. This was the start of a 10-year, systematic search of 1,000 nearby stars, over a range of frequencies that hadn’t been explored at all before, and we thought this was phenomenal. We understood what a big step forward we were taking, and I think we also thought we’d won our funding battle.

For me, personally — I thought, “Wow, this is really a milestone for humanity. We’re launching this systematic program, with government support. It has to be an indication of how mature we’ve become as a society since we are willing to go after these big questions because we’re curious, not because there’s going to be any direct or immediate return on investment.”

And so I was all pumped up and thought really good things about the human race at that moment. And yes I was — and probably still am – naïve.

Of course, one year later — almost to the day — Sen. [Richard] Bryan [D-Nev.] managed to terminate NASA’s funding for the High Resolution Microwave Survey. Not only that, but he did it in a way that said, in effect, “I don’t want to see this item come back next year, or the year after.”

So although the action he took technically had an impact on one fiscal year’s appropriation, he in fact established an environment that said NASA was out of the SETI game.

For years we became the four-letter S-word that you couldn’t actually say at NASA headquarters. It was only at the very end of Alan Stern’s tenure as the director of the Space Mission Directorate that he changed the wording of the NASA call for research proposals to include the possibility of proposals not only looking for biosignatures — to detect life beyond Earth — but looking for technosignatures, to detect intelligent, technological civilizations beyond Earth.

At about the same time, with the help of Rep. Lamar Smith [R-Texas], we were able to remove the explicit ban on funding for SETI research that had been inserted into the NSF [National Science Foundation] solicitation for research proposals in 1993.

So that’s the long, rocky, nasty history.

It sounds frustrating.

Yes, a roller coaster, and no way to run a railroad or to build a stable program. If we want, as we do, to entice the best and the brightest young people with great ideas, and vision, and passion, who can figure out ways to do the search even better than we’ve been able to do in the past, we have to give them a little bit more certainty that they will be able to do this as a career, and that they’re not really risking everything.

So at this point you can apply for small grants from NASA, but nothing bigger.

That’s right. There’s no opportunity to apply to run a program on the order of a couple of million dollars a year, which is what we need. There are no remaining groups within NASA who could again build up a program internally, and no solicitations to the external world where this ground-based type of program fits in. The NSF attitude appears to be that SETI is a “NASA thing,” and our attempts there have been criticized by reviewers because we cannot promise breakthrough science within the three-year grant horizon. 

A systematic, comprehensive SETI program needs an awkward amount of funding.

That was my next question. What kind of sum are you looking for?

Right. So my first goal is to get $2 million a year, coming in the door, stably. That’s for the [SETI] institute, and the Center for SETI Research.

And then, I think that globally, we could probably spend maybe 10 times that, $20 million. If we get really successful and start to raise significant sums of money, then we would like to spread this out globally to get SETI more firmly established in different countries, with different ideas, different instrumentation that’s available.

Ultimately, then, the idea is to create an endowment so that SETI can go on for a very long time and incorporate new strategies and new technologies as they are invented. That endowment would be necessary even if we succeeded in the near future — once we know about one other technological civilization, we will know there are many more to discover.

In this way, I’m essentially following in the footsteps of Barney Oliver [an engineer, former board member and fundraiser for SETI]. Since 1998, I’ve worn two hats at the center: I’ve been the director of the Center for SETI Research, and I’ve also held the Oliver Chair for SETI research. And now Gerald Harp is going to take over as director of the Center for SETI Research, and I will follow Barney’s example. After decades of running Hewlett-Packard labs, Barney began a second career as a fund-raiser for SETI. He had many connections, and he was very successful. It’s mainly due to the efforts of Barney Oliver that SETI has been pursued at the institute for the last two decades.

So now, as the Oliver Chair, I need to repeat that success. And in fact, take it further, so that we’re not talking decades, we’re talking centuries.

What do you think Barney would say to you today?

He would say, “Hrump! This should’ve been easy, why don’t they understand how important this is? There’s money out there that should be available to support this program because it’s so important.”

And he would say something very rude about the federal and state governments, and that they should be in the position of leading the way here. But as with many things, I think today Barney would be grumbling about how this is yet one more lost opportunity, or perhaps one more way in which the U.S. is ceding its leadership in science and technology by failing to invest in our future.

And of course, Barney would tell me to stop writing “which” when it should be “that.”

You’d mentioned $2 million to start off with. Is that what you need to maintain operations as they are, or is that money that you can use to grow the telescope array, or implement new technologies?

That’s not growth for the number of antennas in the Allen Telescope Array, but rather some growth for the signal processing of the data collected by the array. That is just stable funding for the research. We’ll continue what we’re doing, but Gerry Harp has some very excellent ideas about how we can take advantage of the unique features that were built into the ATA to allow it to do radio astronomy and SETI at the same time. We can now usurp some of the back-end technologies that were built for traditional radio astronomy to do SETI in new ways that haven’t been done before; to do polarization surveys, to do surveys for wideband signals that have repetitive structure in time, and — I’m really excited — I want Gerry to be able to concentrate on that and not have to worry about the next paycheck.

This is a fantastic telescope. It has fewer antennas than we’d ultimately like, which means its sensitivity is less than we want, but in terms of the flexibility of the digital processors, that’s all there. We want to fully utilize it and do things simultaneously in different ways.

We have always reserved the right to get smarter. The SETI community has always said if we come up with new ideas — such as optical SETI, 10 years ago — or some new signal processing capabilities to look for different types of signals than the ones we’re currently sensitive to, we’re going to do it. We’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing, but we’ll expand and do complementary searches at the same time. We have this telescope, we really ought to utilize it to the fullest.

What is the telescope doing now?

At the ATA right now, we have changed our search strategy to concentrate on known planetary systems. We’re looking at all of the Kepler worlds, and we’re looking at exoplanets that have been found with ground-based studies. We’re looking where we know there are planets, and this is a new opportunity for us.

We had a list of stars that we had judged as likely to be good hosts for planetary systems, but now we’re just looking at where we know the planets are.

If we look where we know there are some planets in the system, we have the opportunity to detect a technological civilization, even if Kepler, for example, hasn’t yet discovered their particular planet because its orbit is longer. To me this is a game changer. When I was a graduate student, planets were a good theory — and actually, we got the theory wrong. At that time, when people built simulated planetary systems, they always turned out to be just like ours: In a flat plane, circular orbits, the rocky little guys on the inside, the big gas giants on the outside. The systems were nice and stable and happy.

With the detection of 51Pegasi, a massive planet going around its star in a four-day period, those theories got thrown out the door. As a result, we’ve learned an enormous amount about how planetary systems actually form, and Kepler has detected many of these multiplanetary systems that are incredible dynamical laboratories.

We’ve learned so much more by having an example other than our own system.

That’s of course what will be the analogous case with respect to life, and biology, and perhaps even intelligent life. By having something other than ourselves to study, we can fully understand what the full potential of the cosmos is. We won’t be limited by our biases and our inability to distinguish between what is absolutely necessary and what’s contingent.

So, “number two” in the field of SETI, in the field of astrobiology, is the all-important number.

You’ve recently launched, a citizen science project that lets people help with signal detection. Can you tell me about that?

SETILive is our attempt to look for signals of a different type, to look for signals at frequencies that to date have been overlooked. We’re providing real-time data from the telescope — a very small percentage of all the data that we process automatically — to citizen scientists who volunteer to look for patterns in frequency and time.

The data we’re sending them are from frequency bands that are too crowded with our own technologies, and that we currently ignore. But we’re hoping that citizen scientists can use their brains and their pattern recognition abilities to sort through all these signals and maybe find something that’s hidden that we would otherwise miss. They can also help us find different types of signals that our algorithms are not yet programmed to find.

By involving people around the world, we hope to change the world just a bit. We are encouraging volunteers to get involved in SETI, and while they are actively classifying signals, to think for a moment about what it really means to be an Earthling compared to the different technologists that might exist somewhere else out there in the cosmos. We are trying to propagate this cosmic perspective — the ability to step back and see ourselves from the long view as being all the same — more into the consciousness of folks on this planet. We hope particularly to infect the young people who will be tomorrow’s leaders. By expanding their horizons, we can perhaps trivialize the differences among humans that we’re willing to shed blood over, maybe change the world a little bit.

Do you have any idea how many people are currently involved in SETILive?

Yes, there are almost 60,000 people who have signed up as volunteers. Because the data are live, and we keep the statistics, we know that at any one time there are 10, 20, 30 people classifying signals. We’d like to get that up by a factor of five. People are actually doing this, and they seem to be intrigued and satisfied by the experience. They’ve so far marked 2.7 million signals, and we are just about to be able to follow up on those in real time. Sometimes, when I give public talks, a volunteer will come up with a sheaf of Xeroxed screen-dumps. They want to be reassured that they’ve marked the right thing and they haven’t missed something. They understand that this really is science, and they want to do it well.

Sounds like fun. I should get on that.

Yeah, try it.

In your opinion, what would be the most important thing that we could learn from a successful SETI search, if we found extraterrestrial intelligence?

Ah, Phil Morrison [an astrophysicist and early SETI pioneer] said it all, and said it beautifully. He always referred to SETI as “the archaeology of the future.” By that he meant that the successful detection of a signal, if it contains any information, will be telling us about their past because of the finite speed of light. But the successful detection of a signal, even if there’s no information contained in it, tells us that it’s possible for us to have a long future. Unless technologies in the galaxy, on average, survive for a long time, there will never be two technological civilizations that are close enough in space to detect one another, and cotemporal so that they both coexist during this long, 10-billion-year history of the galaxy.

Successful detection requires that technologies have to last for a long time so that emerging technologies, such as ourselves, will be around when they’re transmitting.

Your father [Frank Drake] had the same message when he wrote the degenerate form of the Drake Equation, which says N=L [the number of detectable civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy equals the length of time such civilizations are detectable]. If L isn’t large, we won’t succeed. If we succeed, it’s because L is large.

Do you think that finding an intelligent civilization is an “if” or a “when” question?

I don’t know the answer to that. That’s why I’m searching. It is an open question. The only way to answer it is by searching. You’ve got to go find out what’s actually happening, rather than just think about it.

What if we are alone? What if we don’t find a signal?

It would take a very long time for us to come to that extraordinary and profound conclusion. At some point, there might just be a threshold of pain where people will say, “Look at all the effort that we have put into this search — we have amassed quite significant negative results.” At least, there’s no analog of 20th century technology within our detection range.

We’re a long way from concluding that. But if we get to that point, I would think it would be a real motivation to clean up our act — if we hadn’t already done so — and take very, very seriously the husbandry of our fragile plant and the life that’s on it.

But in fact, I think it will take so long to be justified in the conclusion that we are alone — or, for all practical purposes, that we are alone — if we haven’t already begun to take better care of the planet and the life that’s on it, it’s going to be too late.

But for sure, if we knew we were all that there was, I think we’d be more motivated to make sure that life as we know it survived.

Are you optimistic that we will find a signal?

I think it’s perfectly possible. Everything that we have learned, or that we think we know about the cosmos and about life, suggests it is plausible that what happened here could have happened elsewhere. It is a legitimate question to pose of the cosmos, and I honestly don’t know what the answer is.

Over my career, the recognition and the study of extremophiles and the detection of exoplanets — both of those things make it appear that the universe may be more biofriendly than we once might have concluded. But that’s only appearances. The fact that there may be habitable real estate out there that’s much more abundant than we once thought doesn’t tell us that it is, in fact, inhabited.

Had things gone the other way during my career, so that life became something that was, from our point of view, so improbable, so totally unique, there’d never be a replication of the same circumstances — Planets? What a freak! What star has planets? Only the sun! There can’t be life anywhere else! — that might have been an outcome of our continuing study of the cosmos, but that’s precisely not what happened. We now know that planets are prevalent. Since life as we know it is a planetary phenomenon, we’re entitled to push on from there.

I did want to ask if you wouldn’t mind just reflecting a little bit on your career, starting from the early days. I know you became interested in SETI during graduate school, but I was hoping you could tell me that story.

I got involved in SETI because I knew how to program an ancient computer called a PDP-8/S.

This PDP-8/S — I always thought the S stood for stupid — this was marvel. This was the first time scientists had any kind of computing power on our desktops. It was a big desktop, but nevertheless, it wasn’t one of these huge basement rooms filled with tons of metal. That computer had 11 instructions, no language and you had to program it in octal — you had to set all the 1s and 0s, each step.

I learned how to do that my first year in graduate school as a research assistant. I programmed it to run a spectrometer at an optical telescope that UC Berkeley has as a teaching instrument. And then many, many years later when I was finally finishing grad school, Stu Bowyer, an X-ray astronomer at Berkeley, had a great idea. He’d been listening to the talks that John Billingham had been arranging down at NASA Ames, and he said, “Gee, my friend Jack Welch, he’s got a radio telescope…UC has a radio telescope…why don’t we just piggy back on it? Why don’t we just take a little of the radio data, and amplify it, and analyze it in a different way than the radio astronomers are analyzing it?”

Because radio telescopes detect both amplitude and phase, you can do that. You can make multiple copies of the data and you can analyze it in different ways.

Stu realized this. He came up with this idea to do a piggyback SETI project on the 85-foot telescope at Hat Creek. But he had no money to do this. He went begging and borrowing equipment. Jack Welch [UC Berkeley radioastronomer, now Tarter’s husband] gave him a PAR autocorrelator and somebody else gave him this old PDP-8/S. He said, “What the heck do I do with this computer?” Somebody remembered that I once worked on it, and I was still there. Stu knocked on my office door and gave me a copy of the Project Cyclops report [available here — 14MB file]. He told me what he was doing, suggested I read the report, and that I might want to join his group.

I read that Cyclops report, cover to cover, in about 24 hours.

I was so excited by the idea that I was around in the first generation of humans that actually had some tools that could possibly answer this old question. For millennia, all we could do was ask the priests and the philosophers what we should believe. But now, in the middle of the 20th century, with [Frank Drake] as a pioneer, we’d shown that here was an opportunity to do an experiment to try and answer this question. I was around at the right time, with the right skill sets, and I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting or rewarding than trying to answer this old question.

I got hooked and I stayed hooked.

It was all because of an old PDP-8/S computer. It’s a lesson about being willing to seize the opportunity to do new things with whatever skills you have, independent of why you acquired those skills.

That’s great. You just said that you couldn’t imagine anything more exciting or rewarding than answering this question. As you look back on the last 35 years, what have been some of the most rewarding moments or successes? What are the highlights?

I’ve gotten to meet some amazing people around the world who have an interest in and share a passion for SETI. I think we’ve made SETI a household word. When I started, there was inevitably the immediate juxtaposition of SETI and UFOs and other pseudoscience. I think that as we have approached this as a systematic, scientific exploration and continued to do the job the way you would with any other scientific exploration, we’ve gained credibility for the field. We’ve written the papers with negative results, we’ve described the instrumentation that we’ve developed, we’ve held the meetings and the conferences and done the brainstorming, and we’ve brought in experts from all different fields to help us improve what we’re doing.

We’ve gained credibility. I’m really, really proud of that. Because of SETI, we have introduced to the astronomical community a new way of building a large radio telescope, as a large number of small dishes, and we’ve constructed the proof of concept to show that you actually can do that. We’ve shown the benefits of this kind of architecture for building instruments that are going to do large surveys.

If you go look at the artist’s rendering of the Square Kilometre Array — an international program to build a telescope that would be a hundred times bigger than the built-out ATA — if you look at those drawings, you’ll see the ATA on steroids.

There were many other competing proposals about how to build a very large instrument, inexpensively. We’ve prevailed with the architecture of the ATA. It is far more flexible, far more capable and has all kinds of things that recommend it.

So, I feel really good about that outcome for the astronomical community, and it’s all because of SETI. And now the astronomy community has a new way of building its tools.

The other thing I’m proud of is the SETI Institute itself. In 1984, I helped write the incorporation documents and the charter for the institute. Instead of just saying, “We’re incorporating as a nonprofit in order to save NASA money on its SETI research,” we said, “We would like to be the institutional home that fostered research in any of the terms of the Drake Equation.”

As a result, over the years, we’ve grown into one of the biggest astrobiology centers in the world. Because our name is the SETI Institute, that’s kind of a closely held secret. Most people don’t appreciate that the vast majority of individuals working at the SETI Institute are astrobiologists. We also have educators. We have three centers: the Center for SETI Research, which I directed, and now Gerry Harp will direct; the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, our astrobiology center that David Morrison directs; and the Center for Education and Public Outreach that Edna DeVore directs.

So the SETI Institute team is much bigger than I ever anticipated — or expected, as Barney would tell me — I’m really proud of that.

In a similar vein, what were some of the biggest disappointments or frustrations?

Proxmire’s meddling was the first indication that this was going to be a really rocky road.

But the termination of the NASA High Resolution Microwave Survey, by one senator in a well-orchestrated sneak attack on the appropriations bill at the 11th hour…that was a pretty big blow.

I went home that weekend, and I asked my husband not to leave me alone with any sharp objects. It was pretty grim. Then one of my colleagues, John Dreher, called me and said, “You know, if what we were doing on Thursday made sense, it is still going to make sense on Monday. We just have to figure out another way to do this.”

We all came to work on Monday, we sat around a big conference table, we started reading fund-raising books. We only read one chapter in each book, and that was how to make the Big Ask. We couldn’t take the time to build up the standard funding pyramid of lots of small donors and a few large donors. We just had to go ask potentially large donors. Fortunately, Barney was there, he had the connections, he helped us make those asks, and we were successful. So we built Project Phoenix, which was all about rising from the ashes of congressional termination.

You’d mentioned at one point that you were hooked. What keeps you hooked and coming back for more, despite all the frustrations?

It’s the fact that SETI really is the investment in our future. If we detect a signal, we know we can have a long lifetime. I’m not talking about extraterrestrial salvation, I don’t think they’re going to solve all our problems, tell us the answers to everything. Well, it might happen. But there will be proof that it is possible to become an old technology. Someone else did it. Therefore, damn it, we can do it.

Finding this answer would, I think, be one of the really best investments in our future.

A lot of people consider you to be a role model for women in science, and I was wondering if you view yourself that way as well, or if there was anything you wanted to say about that topic.

I say “yes” to giving a lot more talks than I otherwise might, just because I’m female. I do realize that there aren’t a lot of women out there that can serve this role, and so I’m happy to do that. It’s actually important to be visible.

Just after I got my Ph.D., I was invited to a meeting in Washington sponsored by the American Association of University Women. It had to do with Ted Kennedy introducing a bill providing funding for women to re-enter the scientific workforce after taking time off to have kids.

I’d been in engineering physics as an undergraduate, and I’d been in an astronomy department for graduate school — a whole lot of years almost exclusively with male colleagues. Then I walked into a room full of 80 women, and it was a first-in-a-lifetime experience. These women were all young Ph.D.s in some field of science, engineering, mathematics. They were all bright. It was like a lightbulb in my head saying, “Why aren’t the professions out there equally composed of these bright women and their bright male colleagues?”

It was such an eye-opener. I realized I’d become one of the boys, I was more critical of the few female colleagues I occasionally met than I was of my male colleagues. I realized there were these biases that aren’t necessarily overt. They’re pervasive, and we have to work to change them.

It makes a difference when you can see other women, and you can picture yourself in that role. It made a difference for me, and I hope I can make a difference for someone else.

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