On October 27, Jill Tarter, the Bernard Oliver Chair of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, gave the third annual Women in Physics public lecture. One of the most influential voices in extraterrestrial intelligence research, Tarter began working for NASA in the 1970s before helping to found the SETI Institute in 1984. While other big names were launching the mysteries of the universe into the mainstream, Tarter worked tirelessly behind the scenes, often facing the challenges of being a woman scientist, along with the difficulties of getting her work funded. The character played by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact is based on Tarter’s pioneering research (“I’m still waiting for a sequel,” she jokes). Tarter spoke about “A Cosmic Perspective: Searching for Aliens, Finding Ourselves” in the Penn Museum’s Harrison Auditorium. What follows is a lightly edited snippet of her remarks.
Whether SETI is going to succeed depends, first, on whether there’s anyone out there. And second, on how long their technology persists. Because if technological civilizations spring up and are visible for a short period of time before they turn themselves off or do themselves in, then it’s going to be very, very improbable that there will be any two technological civilizations close enough in three-dimensional space, and aligned in time, to discover one another in the 10 billion-year history of our galaxy. That’s why the late physicist Phillip Morrison liked to call SETI the “archaeology of our future.” The tyranny of light speed means that any information that might be encoded in a signal that we see is telling us about [the sender’s] past and what was happening when that signal was transmitted. But the fact that we receive the signal would mean technologies must persist for a long time. A successful SETI detection will tell us that somebody else figured out how to make it through this particular, very awkward part of our evolutionary history—and therefore we can too. And that, basically, is why I get up in the morning and work on this project—not just for scientists but for everybody on the planet.
It’s also why I think it’s so necessary for scientists to have in their daily routine, their daily work, this cosmic perspective. I think we desperately need to share it with the rest of the world. Compared to anything out there, we are all the same. This idea of thinking of ourselves as Earthlings is so very imperative to finding a way to a long future. SETI is such an interesting and sexy idea; most people are really captivated and not threatened by it. So it can serve as a set of training wheels for us. If we can get the planet working together on the SETI project, cooperating in a way that is absolutely going to be necessary in order to solve all these other frightening technological challenges—food security, water security, climate change—if SETI becomes the model for thinking of ourselves as Earthlings, then maybe we can solve these other problems and challenges. These words are not mine but Caleb Scharf’s, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center, and it’s a lovely way of saying it: “On a finite world, a cosmic perspective isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.”