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Astronomer Who Inspired 'Contact' Character Bringing Cosmic Message To Fermilab


Jill Tarter is an astronomer and Chair Emeritus for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. SETI stands for "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence." Tarter was the basis for the character played by Jodie Foster in the movie adaptation of Carl Sagan's novel "Contact." She will present the lecture "A Cosmic Perspective: Searching For Aliens, Finding Ourselves" at Fermilab in Batavia later this month. On this week's Friday Forum, she talks with WNIJ's Jenna Dooley about the search for life beyond Earth.

SETI came about in the early 1960s to describe the work of radio astronomers who were looking for evidence of intelligent life in the universe.

Tarter explains that the "Intelligence" component of SETI is complicated.

"We certainly don't know how to detect intelligence per se at a distance," Tarter explained. "So what it is actually all about is using technology as a proxy for intelligence. So we've been trying to figure out ways to find evidence of someone else using a technology in ways that modify their environment that we might detect remotely. And yes it started with radio, and then went into optical."

So the real question, according to Tarter, is what else might be out there that's indicative of technology that scientists could search for in other ways.

And answering that question isn't just up to high level mathematicians and astronomers.

"Anyone who is interested could participate in a number of different citizen science projects," Tarter said. "They won't be asking you to decode some strange phenomenon that was discovered in data, but more to help use your eyeballs and your human intelligence to classify things that we are still finding it difficult to make machines do. So simple tasks, counting galaxies, counting craters on moons, that kind of thing can be expanded to provide citizen science opportunities."

But some of those images have yet to be documented.

"Imagery that will be coming from telescopes that we're thinking about building and data sets that were taken for other reasons," Tarter said. "Yes, it's not there yet, but that's one of the things we're talking about is how to allow more public engagement in this question that the public finds extremely interesting."

The "Fermi Paradox" questions why we haven't seen aliens yet.

"(Enrico) Fermi said, 'Where is everyone?' He was basically saying that if there'd ever been a technical civilization anywhere, at least in our galaxy in the past, then the time for them to progress from primitive early technologies to space travel is very short compared to cosmic times," Tarter explained. "And therefore they would inevitably develop space travel and begin to settle, to propagate to other worlds."

Fermi went on to question why we don't see them. Tarter says if it is really a paradox, then we have to conclude that we're the first in the universe. She and her colleagues haven't found evidence in their observations. She says they haven't seen anything credible from UFO communities either. She says she doesn't know of any evidence of deliberate signals.

"That's right, we haven't, but we've hardly looked," Tarter said. 

Tarter says she is most excited about the ability to develop tools to detect transient events--things that aren't persistent. She would also like machines help direct the research in some cases.

"We may not be looking for the right thing but machines will be able to tell us, hopefully, in the not too distant future, if there's something in the data that we should look harder at," Tarter said.

What if there are no aliens out there? That's not the point, according to Tarter.

"I'd like to say that this conversation is sort of holding up a mirror to the entire planet and saying, 'Look in that mirror all of you. All of you humans--you're all earthlings,'" Tarter said. "You're all the same when compared to something else that might be out there. And I think that exercise of trivializing the differences among us is a really important role to play at this moment. This global perspective, this cosmic perspective is really important to solving these challenges."

Tarter's lecture will be presented Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. in Fermilab's Ramsey Auditorium.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.