Life in the Universe

Jill Tarter, Director of the Institute for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Recorded Thursday, April 11, at 11:30 a.m. in Mayser Gymnasium

Watch a video of highlights from this event

Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to secure private funding to continue this exploratory science. Prior to her retirement as Director for the Center for SETI Research last May, Tarter served on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array, located at Hat Creek Radio Observatory in northern California. When this innovative array of 350 6-m antennas is fully operational, it will simultaneously survey the radio universe for known and unexpected sources of astrophysical emissions, and speed up the search for radio emissions from other distant technologies by orders of magnitude.

Tarter’s work has brought her wide recognition in the scientific community, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, two Public Service Medals from NASA, Chabot Observatory’s Person of the Year award (1997), Women of Achievement Award in the Science and Technology category by the Women’s Fund and the San Jose Mercury News (1998), and the Tesla Award of Technology at the Telluride Tech Festival (2001). She was elected an AAAS Fellow in 2002 and a California Academy of Sciences Fellow in 2003 (and CAS Scientific Trustee in 2007). In 2004 Time Magazine named her one of the Time 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2005 Tarter was awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization at Wonderfest, the biannual San Francisco Bay Area Festival of Science. In 2006 Tarter became a National Advisory Board member for the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy in Washington, DC. She is also a Fellow on the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Tarter was one of three Technology, Education, Design (TED) prizewinners and named one of the Most Influential Women in Technology by Fast Company Magazine in 2009, and in April 2010 was a recipient of the Silicon Valley Women of Influence 2010 Award, in addition to becoming an elected fellow of WINGS WorldQuest.

Tarter is deeply involved in the education of future citizens and scientists. In addition to her scientific leadership at NASA and SETI Institute, Tarter has been the Principal Investigator for two curriculum development projects funded by NSF, NASA, and others. The first, the Life in the Universe series, created 6 science-teaching guides for grades 3-9 (published 1994-96). Her second project, Voyages Through Time, is an integrated high school science curriculum on the fundamental theme of evolution in six modules: Cosmic Evolution, Planetary Evolution, Origin of Life, Evolution of Life, Hominid Evolution and Evolution of Technology (published 2003). Tarter is a frequent speaker for science teacher meetings and at museums and science centers, bringing her commitment to science and education to both teachers and the public. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.

This event is open to the public.

2 Responses to “Life in the Universe”

  1. Alan Nitchman April 11, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    With all the environmental threats that face our world today–including diminishing water supplies and global warming–don’t you think we ought to focus our time, efforts, and money on something a little more practical than giant telescopes? As Earthlings, our primary concern should be to protect the Earth on which we live. How will focusing our attention on answering a question (instead of solving an already existing and worsening problem) solve our energy and/or water crisis? Simple answer–It won’t.

  2. Jill Tarter April 22, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    I completely agree with you that we need to focus on finding solutions to the environmental threats you mentioned (as well as others). However effective solutions ultimately must be international. For much more than a decade there have been significant impediments to such transnational cooperation. Particularly in the US, self-serving corporate or other ideological interests are impeding governmental participation in negotiated international standards and limits – as a concerned citizen this makes me really uncomfortable. My level of discomfort was recently echoed by Larry Lessig in his TED talk in Long Beach CA (and I’m sure that talk will launch a lot of new discussion, In my own way during the Common Hour presentation, I was suggesting one small way of making progress and moving around these obstacles.

    I think there are many compelling and important reasons for conducting SETI searches in order to calibrate our place in the universe. But even if you do not agree with my values and rationale, I hope you can appreciate that by involving Earthlings across the globe in a non-threatening, benign, SETI activity that we can set the stage for other, future, international collaborations. A global, grassroots network of individuals who have adopted a larger, more cosmic perspective, and in so doing internalize their commonality and common dependence on a single, fragile planetary environment, is far more likely to demand, foment, and exert the necessary influences on the institutions and structures that are now standing in the way of sensible solutions and accommodations. Corporate Boards of Directors have been replaced and politicians or leaders have been removed from office for less compelling reasons.

    I think there is real potential in spreading the meme of being Earthlings. For me, astronaut Bill Ander’s 1968 photo of Earthrise above the limb of the moon has never lost its power, but I fear it may now be submerged in the cacophony of images that bombard and delight other Earthlings today. I am hopeful that by zooming out into the cosmos even further, by involving the globe in a search for what is truly different than all of us, SETI can help to trivialize the differences among humans that we perceive today.

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