From WIRED: “Jill Tarter Never Found Aliens—But Her Successors Might”

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Wired

07.05.17
Sarah Scoles

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In December 2016, three generations of women astronomers joined me for a phone call. Debra Fischer, Natalie Batalha, and Margaret Turnbull have dedicated their careers to comprehending planets beyond the solar system, the signs of microbial life that might be on those planets, or both of those out-there topics. We talked some about their astronomy, but we mostly talk about another astronom_er_: Jill Tarter—the long-time leader of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the inspiration for the movie and book Contact’s main character, Ellie Arroway.

SETI Jill Tarter

SETI Institute

When Turnbull first watched Contact, as an intern at Harvard University, she was ready to scoff. Contact follows Arroway as she searches for a radio signal from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization, battling bureaucracy, politicians, economic woes, statistical unlikelihood, institutionalized sexism, and her own emotional demons. As a nonfictional woman scientist and a SETI scientist, Tarter faced the same challenges. But this is where the two women’s stories depart: Arroway finds a signal. E.T. calls. E.T. sends instructions for building a spaceship. Humanity builds the spaceship (not without trials), and (not without trials) Arroway becomes the sole passenger.

“I was pretty sure, going into the movie, that I was going to know everything they were doing wrong because I was the smartest I’d ever been when I was a junior in college,” she says, laughing. “But by the end, I forgot all about that attitude and was basically standing on my chair in the theater saying, ‘That’s what I’m supposed to do!’”

Not long after that, in graduate school, Turnbull talked with Tarter in person. “How can somebody do their PhD with you?” she asked.

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Courtesy of Pegasus Books

Tarter told her that she and her colleagues were terrible graduate advisors, and she didn’t recommend it. But the next summer, Turnbull went to the SETI Institute anyway and worked (ill-advisedly, with Tarter) to create a catalog of star systems that could be habitable for life, aptly called the HabCat. Turnbull doesn’t do SETI now, but she sees her own work—in exoplanets and astrobiology, the study of how life comes to be and change and stay, here and potentially elsewhere —as the best way to get close to those investigations that so inspired her in Contact.

The three women then ask each other how many times they have each seen Contact, a question that is first met with ooohs and aaahs, and followed by admissions that they watch it at least once a year. No fictional science movie—not The Martian, or Interstellar, or Arrival—has affected them as much as Arroway’s adventures and misadventures did.

But they do understand and, in some ways, sympathize with the idea that what they do is mainstream, while what inspired them about Contact is fringe. “Within the scientific community, there is healthy skepticism,” says Fischer. “And the question is ‘How do you ever get to a meaningful null result?’” Meaning, “How long and how hard do SETI scientists have to look for extraterrestrial intelligence and find nothing before they say, ‘There is nothing. We are alone.’”

And there’s not a good answer, because the thing about the universe is there’s always more of it to search. There are always new ways that aliens might communicate. And you could try different combinations of places and ways of looking forever and never concede. The inability to get a null result makes a study, in the eyes of some and in some philosophies of science, unscientific. That’s part of why Tarter and other SETI colleagues have tried to set limits—like looking at a million stars within 1,000 light-years—from which they can draw incremental and statistical conclusions.

Batalha, though, expresses solidarity with the non-conclusion of the conclusion of Tarter’s career—that non-conclusion being that she hasn’t found intelligent aliens but can’t say they’re not out there. SETI, astrobiology, and exoplanet science all require generations of work. The whole of science does, really. Big discoveries are rare, coming decades or centuries after people start wondering and doing the work that scaffolds them, shores them up, sets them up to succeed. But without that initial wondering, and those first small steps, no one would make giant leaps at all. “Jill has had this really luminous career doing SETI,” says Batalha. “But at the end of the day, she retired and hadn’t found anything. And I’m guessing that might be my fate as well, in terms of finding [microbial] life. I might live to see that day, or I might not.”

To be an astronomer at all is to be zen about that: about cosmic time and about how you are a cog in the big machine of science, whose gears began turning long before you and will continue to turn long after you. Sometimes those gears grind to a result because of your cog, and sometimes your cog is just there to keep the gears going.

All astronomers have days when they’re good at being zen, and days when they feel hopeless about and powerless before the uncaring bigness and seeming incomprehensibility of the universe. Tarter has had more of the latter recently.

Batalha recalls a meeting for the Kepler space telescope—which has discovered thousands of planets outside the solar system—as the project’s prime data collection was ending, in 2012. She was sitting next to Tarter, who, at a certain point, looked down at the table and near-whispered, to no one but herself, “We didn’t find anything.”

Batalha turned her head to look at Tarter, struck by the depth of emotion. “That feeling—it was just so tangible,” she says. “She announced her retirement two weeks later. Clearly, she knew that she was on the verge of retiring. She was expressing that feeling of all those years of work not realizing that goal.”

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