Are we alone?
Aliens abound on the movie screens, but in reality we are still trying to find out if we share our universe with other sentient creatures. Intelligence is very difficult to define, and impossible to directly detect over interstellar distances. Therefore, SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is actually an attempt to detect evidence of another distant technology. If we find such evidence, we will infer the existence of intelligent technologists. For the past 49 years, the SETI community has had a very pragmatic definition of intelligence — the ability to build large transmitters! Almost all SETI searches to date have looked for radio signals coming from distant civilizations. This is not the only possible way to detect a technology across the vast distances that separate the stars. We’ve recently begun looking for very short optical pulses as well. As our own technology matures, we may try other means of searching, and we will certainly improve upon the searches that we are already conducting. Guiseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison ended their 1959 seminal paper on SETI with the statement, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.” This remains true today.
Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and is Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. 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. Currently, she serves on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array, a joint project between the SETI Institute and the UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Laboratory. When this innovative array of 350 6-m antennas begins operations at the UC’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 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 of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Tarter was one of three 2009 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Prize winners in 2009. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.
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