[Note: This item comes from friend Robert Berger. DLH]
Jill Tarter Never Found Aliens – But Her Successors Might
By Sarah Scoles
Jul 5 2017
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.
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.
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.