Famed astronomer Jill Tarter devoted her career to working toward the day when humans will finally make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.
When asked to describe what will happen in the hours and days after researchers detect some sort of a signal from outer space, Tarter, the co-founder of the SETI (searching for extraterrestrial intelligence) Institute, just chuckles.
“Given the fact that our attention span is so short and the Kardashians are so outrageous, the news will be knocked off the front page fairly quickly and moved to the back pages,” notes the 73-year-old scientist whose pioneering work is profiled in the new book Making Contact, penned by science writer Sarah Scoles.
And yet, if that day ever comes and humans are faced with the mind-blowing reality that we are not alone in the universe, the news could usher in one of the most profound changes in the history of our planet, theorizes Tarter.
“We’ll suddenly have a calibration for who we are and how we fit into the universe and that we’re not singular,” says Tarter, who was the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, based on the novel by cosmologist and astrophysicist Carl Sagan.
“We won’t be able to avoid holding up a mirror to ourselves and realizing that all of us earthlings are all the same and what we’ve just discovered out there is very different,” she says.
Tarter began her pioneering quest for extraterrestrial intelligence at a time when women weren’t encouraged to do much else besides find a husband and have children.
On her first day at the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid 1960s—where she earned her PhD—she was told by the head of the astronomy department that the only reason she was there was because “all the smart men got drafted for Vietnam.”
Tarter retired in 2012 after spending more than four decades tirelessly championing her cosmic quest, helping to keep the search going even after Congress cancelled SETI’s funding in the early 1990s. Today, the SETI Institute, which uses numerous optical and radio telescopes to painstakingly comb deep space, employs over 130 scientists.
The fact that we’ve yet to detect any proof of intelligent life in our cosmic neighborhood, she says, is frustrating but understandable given the nearly unfathomable enormity of outer space. The search, she insists, has truly only just begun.
“It’s such a vast space,” she says. “It’s daunting, but it’s also really exciting right now because our tools are improving exponentially.”
Ultimately, the quest for extraterrestrial intelligence that Tarter helped pioneer is a search for hope. And if that day finally arrives when researchers detect a signal—in the form of radio waves, laser pulses or some other medium—it will ultimately confirm that humans and our planet have a fighting chance at survival.
“There are lots of signs today to indicate that the future of our species is likely to be short,” says Tarter. “We’ve dug ourselves into a pretty deep hole. But even if we aren’t immediately able to decode any information from the message we receive, it will tell us that it’s possible to have a long future, that it’s possible to get through this adolescent phase of our technology, and that if someone else made it through, then we can too.”