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Jill Tarter

Jill Tarter
Director of the Center for SETI Research
The SETI Institute

Talk Title: Science as a Contact Sport, Experiences of a SETI Researcher


Contact with another, distant technological civilization is the goal of SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), and right now we are commissioning the new Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in order to expand and speed up our observations in an attempt to achieve that goal.  The ATA will bring new survey capabilities to the field of radio astronomy and permit SETI observations and more traditional radio interferometry to be conducted simultaneously, nearly 24x7.  Today SETI is in the main stream of scientific exploration, and able to benefit from the Moore’s Law exponentiation of digital signal processing into the foreseeable future.  The path from Frank Drake’s first SETI observations in 1960 to the ATA has not been a straight one, and therefore has offered ample opportunity for “contact” sports.  There have been contacts with Hollywood, with budget cutting Senators, with UFO buffs and related ‘contactees’, but more enjoyably there have been many opportunities to contact the public to share some of the excitement of modern astrobiology, and to contact students who are often surprised to find that math and science are really fun when you are using them to try to figure out where ET might possibly be hanging out. 

Biographical Sketch

Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and is Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.  Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley.  She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide.  Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to secure private funding to continue this exploratory science.  Currently, she serves on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array, a joint project between the SETI Institute and the UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Laboratory.  When this innovative array of 350 6-m antennas begins operations at the UC’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory, it will simultaneously survey the radio universe for known and unexpected sources of astrophysical emissions, and speed up the search for radio emissions from other distant technologies by orders of magnitude.

Tarter’s work has brought her wide recognition in the scientific community, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, two Public Service Medals from NASA, Chabot Observatory’s Person of the Year award (1997), Women of Achievement Award in the Science and Technology category by the Women’s Fund and the San Jose Mercury News (1998), and the Tesla Award of Technology at the Telluride Tech Festival (2001).  She was elected an AAAS Fellow in 2002 and a California Academy of Sciences (CAS) Fellow in 2003 (and a Trustee for CAS in 2007).  In 2004 Time Magazine named her one of the Time 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2005 Tarter was awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization at Wonderfest, the biannual San Francisco Bay Area Festival of Science.  In 2006 Tarter became a National Advisory Board member for the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy in Washington, DC.  She is also a Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) Fellow.

Tarter is deeply involved in the education of future citizens and scientists.  In addition to her scientific leadership at NASA and SETI Institute, Tarter has been the Principal Investigator for two curriculum development projects funded by NSF, NASA, and others.  The first, the Life in the Universe series, created 6 science teaching guides for grades 3-9 (published 1994-96).  Her second project, Voyages Through Time, is an integrated high school science curriculum on the fundamental theme of evolution in six modules:  Cosmic Evolution, Planetary Evolution, Origin of Life, Evolution of Life, Hominid Evolution and Evolution of Technology (published 2003).  Tarter is a frequent speaker for science teacher meetings and at museums and science centers, bringing her commitment to science and education to both teachers and the public.  Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.