SETI: Astronomy as a Contact Sport
A conversation with Jill Tarter

In northern California, 42 radio telescopes lay scattered across a meadow, dedicated to what many have called the most profound search in human history: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

But beyond the lofty dream of alien contact lies the sobering tally: after more than ...

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About Jill Tarter:
Jill_tarter_portrait

Jill Cornell Tarter is an American astronomer and the outgoing Director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research, currently holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair at the SETI Institute. She received a Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree from Cornell University...

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Some Additional Resources:
SETI Stars

SETI Star members enjoy privileged access to SETI Institute and the Carl Sagan Center through Explorer magazine and special events.

SETI Institute: the YouTube Channel

A real wealth of information on everything you would ever want to know about SETI. Updated frequently with a variety of speakers and subject matters.

How big is our universe? An exploration through space and time

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics provides a good online glance at the scope of astronomy and the universe for the non-specialist.

Talking about Life: Conversations on Astrobiology

edited by Chris Impey

A recent collection of interviews and articles from an impressive array of astronomers, geologists, biologists and writers on the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the state of the search for it. Edited by Impey, a faculty member at the University of Arizona.

Contact

by Carl Sagan

Although science fiction, this novel nevertheless gives insight into the potentially incredible impact that contact with an extraterrestrial race could make on human civilization, written by one of the most passionate and personable scientists of his time.


Searching for ‘What Is’ (Commentary Excerpt)

Many physicists like to throw the word “universe” around: Secrets of the universe. Mysteries of the universe. Origin of the universe. Parallel universes.

It is a big subject. Fully befitting, we like to think, our big brains.

Sure, you might make more money than we do. You might drive fancier cars and have a bigger house. But we study the universe. Top that.

But look a bit closer and the physicist’s universe tends to be a fairly arid place, riddled with abstract notions of guiding principles and fundamental constants. Spend enough time with a physicist, in fact, and it’s easy to forget that the universe actually has stuff inside it.

Jill Tarter, though, hasn’t forgotten.

She has the credentials, of course: a PhD in Astronomy from Berkeley and a long and distinguished research career capped by the usual dollop of academic accolades. But Jill has spent the majority of her professional life driving forward the science and technology of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – SETI for short – rigorously scanning the sky for the signs of some signal sent to us from outer space.

Outer space? Well, not that outer, actually, when you get right down to it.

Right now, SETI is focusing its telescopes on our nearest neighbours: those stars “only” a few hundred light years away. Or, to put it another way, those within a mere one percent of the 75,000 light-year distance across our Milky Way Galaxy. Let’s not even mention the other 100 billion galaxies out there, each containing roughly 100 billion suns.

These sorts of numbers quickly produce the sort of intellectual vertigo that astronomy is famous for. With numbers that big, set among all that “real estate”, as Tarter calls it, you might even wonder if it makes a difference where we point our telescopes at all.

But it does. Quite a bit, actually. With the launch of the Kepler spacecraft in 2009, the new field of hunting 'exoplanets' – planets orbiting suns other than our own – exploded. Astronomers have now located over 2700 exoplanets and, as Tarter told me, the tide has now turned sufficiently that most scientists would say: “Yes, there are probably more planets than stars out there”...

It is towards these 2700 exoplanets that SETI is now directing its telescopes. Not only because we know there are planets there. But also because they are relatively close by. Relatively, of course, is the operative word. Any communication with a civilization that is several hundred light years away would be problematic, to put it mildly, requiring upwards of half a millennium to exchange a simple greeting. Assuming, of course, there is anybody there to speak with anyhow. Finding a planet – even a planet potentially habitable for life as we know it – is one thing. Discovering, let alone chatting with, a distant civilization is something else again.

So is it hopeless?

For the full Commentary, purchase this issue from our site, or buy the eBook from Amazon.com or iBookstore, or download our app off Apple Newsstand. Each issue comes with the commentary, the full conversation, a biography of our guest, as well as references for further exploration.