Jill Tarter

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Jill Tarter
Jill Tarter at Starmus IV Trondheim 2017.jpg
Jill Tarter at Starmus IV Trondheim 2017, photograph by Max Alexander/Starmus.
Jill Cornell

(1944-01-16) January 16, 1944 (age 78)
NationalityUnited States
EducationB.E.P., Cornell University, 1965
M.A., University of California at Berkeley, 1971
Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley, 1975
Known forSETI research
Spouse(s)C. Bruce Tarter
Jack Welch
ChildrenShana Tarter
Scientific career
FieldsRadio astronomy
ThesisThe Interaction of Gas and Galaxies within Galaxy Clusters (1975)
Doctoral advisorJoseph Silk
InfluencesRichard Feynman
Grace Hopper
Margaret Burbidge
InfluencedNatalie Batalha
Debra Fischer
Margaret Turnbull

Jill Cornell Tarter (born January 16, 1944) is an American astronomer best known for her work on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Tarter is the former director of the Center for SETI Research, holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute.[1][2][3] In 2002, Discover magazine recognized her as one of the 50 most important women in science.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Tarter grew up in New York State, and graduated from Eastchester High School in 1961. She was elected to its alumni association hall of fame in 2001.[5] Prior to his death when she was twelve years old, Tarter's father was an early inspiration who encouraged her curiosity when she resisted suggestions that she follow pursuits considered more appropriate for a girl and announced that she wanted to be an engineer. On family trips to Florida with her father, she would look up at the dark skies and wonder who or what might be out there.[6][7]

Tarter earned a Bachelor of Engineering Physics degree as an undergraduate at Cornell University as one of only two women in her graduating class in the engineering college. Her professional interest in astronomy emerged as she pursued a Master's degree and PhD at the University of California at Berkeley.[6][7][8] In her PhD dissertation she coined the term "brown dwarf" while researching small-mass objects that fail to stably fuse hydrogen.[9]

Astronomy career[edit]

"Life Beyond Earth" CSICon 2016

Tarter has worked on a number of major scientific projects, most relating to the search for extraterrestrial life. As a graduate student, she was inspired to do SETI research by the Cyclops Report. Stuart Bowyer gave her the report to read when Bowyer discovered that Tarter could program the then-outdated PDP-8/S computer that had been donated by Jack Welch for Bowyer's SETI project at Hat Creek Radio Observatory. She worked with Bowyer on the radio-search project SERENDIP and created the corresponding backronym, "Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations".[6] She was project scientist for NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) in 1992 and 1993 and subsequently director of Project Phoenix (HRMS reconfigured) under the auspices of the SETI Institute. She was co-creator with Margaret Turnbull of the HabCat in 2002, a principal component of Project Phoenix. Tarter has published dozens of technical papers and lectures extensively both on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the need for proper science education. She had spent 35 years in the quest for extraterrestrial life when she announced her retirement in 2012.[2][3][10]

On October 20, 2006, Tarter appeared on the Point of Inquiry podcast to discuss the question: "Are we alone?" Tarter stated, "Humans will have a different view about being human if and when we know the answer to the 'Are we alone?' question."[11]

In 2011, Tarter delivered a talk, "Intelligent Life in the Universe: Is Anybody Out There?", at the first Starmus Festival in the Canary Islands. The Festival, founded by astronomer Garik Israelian, was a blend of astronomy, allied sciences, music, and art. Tarter subsequently joined the Starmus Board of Directors, along with Israelian, astrophysicist and Queen founding guitarist Brian May, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and others. Her 2011 talk was published in the book Starmus: 50 Years of Man in Space.[12] Tarter is a member of the CuriosityStream Advisory Board and the Space for Humanity Board of Advisors.[13]

In May 2013, the Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2013 was introduced into Congress. Tarter was listed by one commentator as a possible nominee for the position of Science Laureate, if the act were to pass.[14]

In 2017, science journalist Sarah Scoles published a biography of Tarter and a history of SETI, called Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.[15]

Honors and awards[edit]

Tarter's work in astrobiology and her success as a female scientist have garnered achievement awards from a number of scientific organizations.

Popular culture[edit]

Tarter's astronomical work is illustrated in Carl Sagan's novel Contact. In the film version of Contact, the protagonist Ellie Arroway is played by Jodie Foster. Tarter conversed with the actress for months before and during filming, and Arroway was "largely based" on Tarter's work.[26] She has also been featured in John Boswell's Symphony of Science music video, "The Poetry of Reality (An Anthem for Science)".[27]

Prior to Seticon II in 2012 Tarter addressed concerns about alien invasion, like those seen in science fiction films, in particular those expressed by Stephen Hawking. Correlated with Hawking's reservations is his belief that humans should not attempt to broadcast signals in order to contact alien civilizations (Active SETI). Tarter thinks that aliens evolved enough to communicate with and travel to Earth will be long-lived enough to have needed to grow beyond violent tendencies.[28][29]

“Often the aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves.... While Sir [sic] Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore. Considering the age of the Universe, we probably wouldn’t be their first extraterrestrial encounter, either. We should look at movies like ‘Men in Black III,’ ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Battleship’ as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”[29]


  1. ^ a b c d "Jill Tarter". SETI Institute. SETI Institute. Archived from the original on 8 February 2018. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  2. ^ a b Overbye, Dennis (18 June 2012). "A Career Waiting for E.T. to Phone". New York Times. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  3. ^ a b "Alien hunter retires after 35-year quest for E.T." Fox News. May 22, 2012. Retrieved May 22, 2012.
  4. ^ Svitil, Kathy (13 November 2002). "The 50 Most Important Women in Science". Discover. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  5. ^ "EASTCHESTER HS/Alumni Association HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 February 2018. Retrieved 22 February 2018.
  6. ^ a b c Scoles, Sarah (2017). Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. New York, NY: Pegasus Books. ISBN 9781681774411.
  7. ^ a b Cosier, Susan (January 29, 2014). "10 Questions for Jill Tarter, Astronomer". Science Friday. Science Friday Initiative. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  8. ^ Koren, Marina (2017-07-12). "Jill Tarter, Feminist Cosmic Icon". The Atlantic. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  9. ^ Tarter, Jill (2014), "Brown is Not a Color: Introduction of the Term 'Brown Dwarf'", in Joergens, Viki (ed.), 50 Years of Brown Dwarfs – From Prediction to Discovery to Forefront of Research, Astrophysics and Space Science Library, vol. 401, Springer, pp. 19–24, doi:10.1007/978-3-319-01162-2_3, ISBN 978-3-319-01162-2
  10. ^ Hayes, Jacqui. "Silent witness". COSMOS. Cosmos Magazine. Archived from the original on 5 April 2012. Retrieved 22 February 2018.
  11. ^ DJ Grothe (October 20, 2006). "Jill Tarter - Are We Alone?". www.pointofinquiry.org (Podcast). Center for Inquiry. Retrieved May 18, 2014.
  12. ^ Board, Starmus Festival and Promotur-Canary Islands Tourism. "Starmus Festival and Stephen Hawking Launch the Book "Starmus, 50 Years of Man in Space"". Retrieved April 26, 2017.
  13. ^ "CuriosityStream Advisory Board". Retrieved 31 August 2015.
  14. ^ Marlow, Jeffrey (9 May 2013). "The Science Laureate of the United States". Wired Magazine. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
  15. ^ "Making Contact". pegasusbooks.com. Archived from the original on 2017-05-02. Retrieved 2017-08-14.
  16. ^ "CSI Fellows and Staff". Retrieved August 7, 2011.
  17. ^ "Past Honorees". Telluride Tech Festival. Archived from the original on October 17, 2011. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
  18. ^ "Women in Space Science". Adler Planetarium. Adler Planetarium. Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  19. ^ TIME Magazine: "TIME 100: Jill Tarter". Time. April 26, 2004. Retrieved October 27, 2008.
  20. ^ "Scientist probes outer space for aliens". CNN. April 19, 2004. Retrieved October 27, 2008.
  21. ^ "Sagan Prize Recipients". wonderfest.org. 2011. Retrieved September 10, 2011.
  22. ^ "Jill Tarter". TED. Retrieved 22 February 2018.
  23. ^ Trost, Matthew (2009-02-20). "Exclusive interview with TED Prize-winner Jill Tarter of SETI". TED. Retrieved 22 February 2018.
  24. ^ "AAS Fellows". AAS. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  25. ^ "Jill Tarter bio". AAAS. Retrieved 23 May 2021.
  26. ^ "Dr. Jill Tarter: Looking to Make 'Contact'". Archived from the original on October 5, 2008. Retrieved October 27, 2008.
  27. ^ John Boswell (melodysheep), "The Poetry of Reality (An Anthem for Science)" on YouTube, February 25, 2010.
  28. ^ Orwig, Jessica (January 20, 2016). "A world leading scientist on the search for extraterrestrials pointed out a flaw in Stephen Hawking's fear of finding intelligent aliens". Business Insider. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  29. ^ a b "SETI Institute's Jill Tarter takes issue with Stephen Hawking, MIB3, Prometheus and Battleship". SETI Institute. June 2012. Archived from the original on 25 February 2018. Retrieved 25 February 2018.

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