Silent witness

It takes unflinching conviction and steely self-confidence to dedicate your career to the search for extraterrestrial civilisations – and only a woman like Jill Tarter could do it.

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. – NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

IT’S PITCH BLACK in the dead of the night, deep in the tropical rainforest of Puerto Rico. Nested in a limestone terrain of natural sinkholes and ravines, and silently watching the skies, is the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radio telescope. It’s waiting to capture the first signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.

Inside, Jill Tarter, the research director of the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), moves rhythmically between workstations, keeping pace with Brazilian samba playing from the loudspeakers.

“It is possible to do unusual things very late at night, when there are very few people around,” says astronomer Seth Shostak, one of her colleagues from the SETI Institute, who prefers to take the earlier shifts at telescopes.

For six years, Arecibo was the home of the non-profit institute’s Project Phoenix, the most comprehensive and sensitive search for extraterrestrial intelligence ever conducted, which scanned about 800 nearby stars for a sign that we’re not alone.

TARTER WOULD USUALLY sign up for the graveyard shift to take the pressure off her team and inspire them to work harder.

During the night, dancing to samba helps to alleviate boredom and keep her spirits high through the nigh, she says. And in many ways, her solo samba no pé reflects the nature of SETI thus far: a passionate but improvised dance.

After more than 30 years in the field, Tarter has been awarded two Public Service Medals from the U.S. space agency NASA, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2004, and is also credited with coining the term ‘brown dwarf’ for the half-planet, half-star objects.

She was (at least partly) Carl Sagan’s inspiration for the character of Ellie Arroway, the SETI researcher played by Jodie Foster in the 1997 movie Contact. And in 2009 she won the TED Prize, given by the U.S. foundation best known for its conferences and online video lectures devoted to “ideas worth spreading”.

Searching an infinite and ever-expanding universe for other civilisations is not a career path for the faint hearted. Designing a project that might detect alien signals is a devilishly difficult problem; trying to convince political leaders and funding agencies to support it – well, that’s all but impossible. But for Tarter, SETI is not a side project or intellectual hobby; she is the first person to dedicate an entire career to it.

“Jill is willing to devote her life to SETI,” says Shostak. “That’s a very daring thing to do. Not only has no one else at the SETI Institute done that, but no one else in the world has done that.” And, at times, Tarter has been the lone beacon to guide the nascent science through troubled waters.

WEARING A LONG, embroidered overdress, with chunky jewellery and a soothing Californian accent, Tarter’s appearance is difficult to reconcile with her iconic status in a small and difficult field of astronomy.

Looking at her long list of achievements, it seems that she breaks stereotypes and sexist barriers with ease and frequency. But from under her short crop of grey hair she reveals that a lifetime spent in a field still considered male dominated has been anything but easy.

Tarter’s drive and ambition stems from her father, who told her at the age of eight that if she worked hard enough, then she wouldn’t be restricted to learning about ‘girl stuff’. Following his advice, when she finished high school Tarter – then Jill Cornell – applied to New York’s Cornell University to study engineering.

A descendant (through five generations) from the half-brother of the university’s founder, Ezra Cornell, she applied for a scholarship available to Cornell’s relatives. She was told she was ineligible: the scholarship was only available to male relations.

SOMEONE’S CONSCIENCE MUST HAVE been piqued when she was unsuccessful. A few days later, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Procter & Gamble scholarship for engineering.

She entered university as the only female in a class of 300 engineering students; it was an experience that was sometimes isolating, she says. “I was an only child, and my mother was very protective. All my clothes had little labels with my name on them.

“One day, I was sitting in a very large engineering lecture and threw my sweater over the back of my seat. I heard a little titter behind me, then snickers, then a wave of laughter behind my back. The professor stopped the lecture and asked what was going on. The guys had seen the label on my sweater: where it said ‘100% virgin wool’ my mother had sewn my name over ‘wool’.”

“If I could make it through that day, I could make it through anything,” Tarter sighs. But it was just one of many such experiences.

It was in her first year at Cornell that she met Bruce Tarter, who was her physics lab instructor. They decided to marry in the summer of her third year, but the decision nearly cost her the hard-won scholarship. Procter & Gamble thought a woman would not use her education if she were married. With the support of the dean of engineering, Dale Corson, she kept her scholarship.

The pair moved to California, and she began her graduate studies in astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley. It was an exciting time – advances in technology allowed scientists to map the universe at new wavelengths, leading to the discovery of black holes, microwave background radiation and gamma ray bursts.

TARTER USED ONE OF the world’s first ‘minicomputers’ – multi-user computers that were descended from the room-filling mainframes but came before the arrival of PCs. She programmed it to analyse signals from an optical telescope.

She also came up with the term ‘brown dwarf’ for newly discovered objects that looked too massive to be gas giant planets but didn’t have enough mass to create self-sustaining nuclear fusion in their cores.

Her graduate studies took her longer than most, as she was raising her daughter, Shana. It was also during this time that she divorced Bruce Tarter, who went on to become director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California up until 2002.

“I kept his surname when we divorced because our eight-year-old daughter asked me to do so – she didn’t want to be one more kid in her school with parents of different names,” Tarter said.

“Also I had already published under that name, and wanted to keep the citation record straight.”

TARTER NEARLY DIDN’T make it into SETI. Apart from her drawn-out doctorate, the hype surrounding the Apollo missions infected Tarter with the astronaut bug. “As it turns out, I was divorced at the time and raising my daughter, and that wasn’t exactly the right image for a NASA astronaut,” Tarter explains of her failure to make the cut.

“I wanted to be the first woman on the Moon: and I am totally disappointed that I could still fulfil that goal,” she quips.

Despite having a position lined up as a researcher at NASA, the turning point in Tarter’s career path came when a colleague handed her a copy of the Cyclops Report.

It was the result of a NASA-commissioned study into how to detect evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations. Its 300-odd pages covered everything from the formation and evolution of planetary systems to why the chances of life elsewhere were high; from the limits of interstellar communication to where to look in the spectrum and why.

It also proposed an array of radio telescopes – each 100 metres in diameter – to search for radio signals at a distance of up to 1,000 light-years, starting with a small group and eventually building up to 900 dishes. Today, the Cyclops Report is colloquially known as the ‘Bible of SETI’.

Inspired by the report, a group of astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley, devised a SETI project of their own. With no funds, the leader of the study, Stuart Bowyer, got his hands on any equipment he could.

ONE FORTUITOUS INSTRUMENT happened to be an outdated minicomputer that Tarter had learnt to program as a student. Bowyer went looking for Tarter, the only person at the university who still knew how to use it.

“I got started in SETI because I knew how to program an obsolete computer,” Tarter says. Bowyer turned up at her door with a copy of the report.

“I read that thing overnight, cover to cover, and it was pretty dense but I was so intrigued. I sat there and I thought ‘Oh my heavens, I could do this.’ I realised I lived in the first generation of humans who didn’t just have to ask the priests and the philosophers what to believe.”

“This question is old, but the only thing we’ve ever done is ask somebody what we should believe,” she says. “Right then and there, we were beginning to develop the tools to develop the experiment.”

BOWYER AND TARTER began raising funds for the project, which they named SERENDIP (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio from Nearby Developed Populations) – and it turned out to be serendipitous in more than one way. Bowyer organised for his friend William ‘Jack’ Welch, director of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley (and also a pilot), to fly Tarter and him to a fund-raising meeting.

It was the first time Tarter met Welch, though she says it was not immediately apparent that he would become her second husband.

“After a while, it was just an obvious thing for us to get together,” she says. ‘Jack and Jill’ tied the knot in 1980, and today Welch serves as a member of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees.

During project SERENDIP, copies were made of deep space radio signals taken from telescopes at Goldstone and Hat Creek, California. Making a copy of a signal is only possible in the radio end of the electromagnetic spectrum, and it allowed Tarter and her colleagues to ‘piggyback’ – analyse signals that other astronomers were collecting from the telescope.

At that stage “we didn’t know where to look or what frequency to pick anyway,” Tarter says. “[We thought] we might as well take what they are doing – it was a good way to get on the telescope for a lot of time, very inexpensively.”

When the first projects of SETI were launched, no one had any idea what the chances were of finding a signal, Tarter explains. She thought it was just as likely that the researchers would tune in and hear nothing as tuning in and being suddenly inundated with signals from thousands of civilisations.

SERENDIP never found a signal of extraterrestrial origin. But the inexpensive project continues today – the fifth generation of SERENDIP was installed on the Arecibo telescope in early 2009.

BETTER-FUNDED PROJECTS proved to be an entirely different story. While the scientific community eventually acknowledged the legitimacy of SETI, Tarter had to spend a large part of her career in a frustrating battle to convince the U.S. Congress of the field’s value.

One characteristic Tarter shares with Arroway, the protagonist of Contact, is a healthy disdain for bureaucracy.

So when William Proxmire, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, began giving out ‘Golden Fleece Awards’ to scientific projects he considered a waste of taxpayers’ money, NASA’s infant SETI program got all the attention. A media frenzy ensued, charged with ridicule; it’s a memory that still rankles Tarter today.

“It was incredibly hypocritical, because Senator Proxmire’s state was getting – and still is getting – federal subsidies for the dairy industry,” she says, “instead of doing something that is economically viable. Yet he had the audacity to go looking through scientific grants, looking for projects that he could ridicule.”

In 1982, Proxmire led the U.S. Senate to discontinue all federal funding for SETI. As Tarter began to wrap up the projects, NASA took the opportunity to make a statement.

“NASA WAS JUST INCENSED that an individual would meddle in their budget at the lowest level – we’re talking less than a million dollars at that point,” Tarter says. The next year, not only did NASA provide more funds for SETI, but they also included supporting material in the budget describing the scientific legitimacy of SETI.

It was approved and Tarter co-founded the privately operated SETI Institute in 1984 in order to lower the costs of operating SETI projects – though all their projects were still funded by NASA.

In 1992, Tarter and her colleagues launched their most ambitious plan to date: a targeted search of 1,000 nearby stars over 10 years. But with the following year’s budget, the U.S. Congress delivered a bureaucratic coup de grace.

“The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end,” U.S. Senator Richard Bryan proudly announced when SETI funding was squelched. “As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said ‘take me to your leader.'”

TARTER IS QUICK TO point out the irony that Bryan’s state, Nevada, has the officially designated ‘Extraterrestrial Highway’, because of its proximity to Area 51 and its unusually high number of reported UFO sightings.

Nevertheless, he managed to single-handedly revoke NASA’s budget for SETI, which by that time was running at US$10 million a year. This time around, NASA did not put up a fight.

“When the termination happened I was actually leading a group of a couple of dozen people. And all of these people that I was responsible for were going to be out of work,” she says.

“It happened on a Friday, and I went home and I told my husband, ‘don’t let me near any sharp objects’ – I was so depressed.”

Despite the termination, everyone showed up to work on Monday morning. So they immediately began to raise funds privately, and seven million dollars were in the kitty in just a few months. Donors included David Packard and William Hewlett, co-founders of Hewlett-Packard; the co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore; and Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.

WITH THE SUPPORT of the Silicon Valley elite, they began Project Phoenix, named for the colourful bird in Ancient Greek mythology that is born anew from the ashes of its fiery death.

When the axe fell, Tarter and her colleagues had already applied for observation time on several telescopes around the world. NASA engineers had been scheduled to build the necessary parts to make the telescopes work for a SETI search. Tarter called the telescope directors to ask if they could still do so. The Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales was their first stop.

“The technology for what Jill was trying to do was quite complicated,” says engineer John Brooks, then the assistant director of Parkes. Most astronomers image objects at a single frequency, or over a minuscule range of frequencies; Tarter was trying to process an enormous range of frequencies in real time.

“For what she was doing, you had to go where no man had gone before,” Brooks says. But the engineers succeeded and Phoenix went ahead. Tarter had plenty of opportunity to practice her samba. “We were at Parkes for so long that I shipped down my Nordic track and logged a lot of miles through the night,” she says.

In March 2004, at the end of Project Phoenix, the SETI Institute announced that no evidence of extraterrestrial signals had been found. But they also unveiled plans to build an array of 350 antennas, each six metres in diameter, named the Allen Telescope Array (thanks again to a hefty start-up donation from the co-founder of Microsoft).

But the global financial crisis in 2008 dampened private funding – the Silicon Valley was one of the hardest hit areas. Meanwhile, government-supported facilities such as Arecibo experienced deep budget cuts.

NEVERTHELESS, THE INSTITUTE continues with its challenging task, and the first phase of the Allen array – 42 antennas – is already operating. The number was chosen as a salute to Douglas Adams’ satirical science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 is the ‘answer’ to the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

“Without the funding to build out to 350 antennas, it seems like a good place to stop,” Tarter says, with a smile. Is it possible that 42 telescopes may provide an answer? Maybe, she says.

When completed, the Allen array will capture and process an unprecedented range of radio frequencies from a portion of the sky several times the area of the full Moon. The biggest improvement on previous radio astronomy, though, is that the Allen array can search the sky for transient signals, including supernovae and gamma ray bursts.

Previous searches only focussed on constant signals, and transient signals have not been investigated in radio wavelengths at all. The array will most likely make important radio astronomy discoveries, even if it doesn’t find a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation, Tarter says.

Although the telescopes are almost entirely automatic, a staff member is always there to decide what to do if a signal is detected.

“All the time we detect signals,” Tarter explains. “Sometimes it takes a few passes through the computer’s automated procedures to rule it out, and occasionally – once every couple of years – we get a signal candidate that persists.”

Four times in her career, Tarter has experienced the heart-stopping high of a false alarm. “It’s extraordinarily, stunningly exciting,” she says. “When it happens, your pulse races and you get stupid. You make mistakes because you’re so excited.”

After the telescope picks up a signal, the team first looks for some other explanation: satellites, astronomical objects or other devices such as radar. The last step is to call the director of another telescope and ask them to turn their telescopes to the same point, to see if they get the same signal. “We’ve never actually gotten to the point where we have made that phone call, though we have gotten close,” Tarter says.

SETI might succeed in the next two decades, it might succeed in a thousand years or it may never succeed. Tarter knows that, but she hopes that one day she or her colleagues get to make that phone call. “A bottle of champagne is certainly on ice, all the time, at every place we’ve ever observed,” Tarter smiles.

Is this just a metaphor? Or is a bottle is chilling at the Allen Telescope Array as we speak? “Oh yes,” she grins. “We plan for success.”

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