On social media a few years ago, I learned about the engaging project by photographer Brandon Stanton called “Humans of New York.” What started as an effort to photograph and interview everyday New Yorkers has expanded into a worldwide project to catalog the human condition in the faces and stories of individual people around the world. HONY is followed online by millions of people, a clear indication of the increasing reach technology has made into our lives and the degree to which we can more easily learn of the experiences–big and small–of people just like us (or not) all around the world. As a child, I and others of my generation were encouraged to have “pen pals” with other children–strangers, really–who lived far from us, to expand our horizons. Now, the internet has revolutionized how we interact with other people all over the world and to gain a broader perspective of life on planet Earth, human and otherwise.
When a handful of astronauts first traveled to the moon in the 1960s, they famously turned the camera back on Earth and captured for the first time photos of our home. Under a thin layer of atmosphere and upon a thin layer of crust live us and all the other species we’ve ever known. In the past few decades, we’ve sent probes and cameras to explore the properties of other planets and moons in our solar system, seeking out whether conditions of Earth are unique for life and, in fact, whether life exists elsewhere. It is an awe-inspiring idea, that through careful observation and scientific inquiry, we could, maybe even in the lifetimes of people currently inhabiting Earth, discover that we are not alone in the universe. Even more recently, we have sought out other solar systems using the Kepler space telescope, which has revealed that there may be countless other stars and planets that could feature properties that might support life elsewhere, far from home.
This new and growing interdisciplinary field of science, called astrobiology, caught my attention some years ago through science news and educational resources for the college biology courses I teach. Astrobiologists study the astronomy, geology, and biochemistry needed to support to the most fundamental life forms that we know of: bacteria and other hardy microscopic single-celled organisms. It supplants earlier ideas of what life might be like on other planets, such as the famously depicted “little green men” of Mars that clearly don’t exist. Such alien life was considered primarily the stuff of science fiction literature and movies, capturing our imagination and causing us to consider what it means to be human, in an isolated corner of the universe. Indeed, many scientific, social science, religious, and philosophical efforts focus specifically on the human condition and what makes us unique. It’s a topic seemingly as old as human society itself. Astrobiologists step back a bit further to consider life–broadly defined–in the universe as a whole, raising new questions about the web of life on a cosmic scale.
In my childhood in the 1980s, I was captivated by the force of science and philosophy that was Carl Sagan, who became a household name for a generation after creating a multi-part television series called “Cosmos,” based on his book of the same name. (The series was remade and updated in 2014 with host Neil deGrasse Tyson.)
Sagan famously claimed that we, like everything in the universe, are made of “star stuff,” organized from the same ingredients. Exploring the awe and scope of space and our place in it inspired a generation of new scientists in many disciplines. In 1997, the work of Carl Sagan once again took center stage with the release of an acclaimed movie about what it might be like to discover that, indeed, we might not be alone in the universe. “Contact,” starring Jodie Foster, is based on a science fiction book by Sagan with the same name. Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is a young female radio astronomer who has made it her life’s work to listen in on radio waves from space to see if anyone out there is broadcasting to us, just as we have broadcast ourselves into space since the invention of the radio. The film explores what might happen if we actually discovered potential evidence of intelligent life on other planets through the radio telescopes, and how that news would impact human society here on Earth. Other themes include women in science, science funding, government and science, aliens as good or bad, religion and science, and, not surprisingly (but in my view, somewhat unnecessarily), a love interest for Arroway, so we can see her “human” side. (Interestingly, NASA has been in the news this week for its plans to hire a new Planetary Protection Officer to minimize possible contamination of microbes to and from Earth and coordinate efforts with officials in other countries…not so much to ward off the potential attacks by intelligent creatures feared by some officials in the movie.) Arroway is based in part on the life of Jill Tarter–a real-life radio astronomer who famously is a leader and ongoing champion of a research effort known as SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence)–whom Sagan knew through shared research networks in astronomy.
Earlier this summer, I learned of a new book by Sarah Scoles, called Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. I was intrigued. I grew up with Carl Sagan. I had seen “Contact.” I knew all about SETI (or thought I did). And I knew about Jill Tarter and her connection to the film, but I hadn’t heard much about her for several years. In 2003, during a wave of interest in SETI following the release of “Contact,” Tarter was an invited speaker to a science lecture series at the university where I teach. I was eager to attend and listened with interest to her presentation about SETI and science and admired her role as a leading woman in a traditionally male-dominated field of science while simultaneously advocating for a research topic that fostered deep skepticism. At some point during her campus visit, I participated in a Q&A session with Tarter in a small seminar classroom around a table with about a dozen other people. It was a fascinating experience. While I don’t remember in detail what topics were discussed, I was left with an appreciation and admiration for this seemingly no-nonsense woman and scientist who didn’t give up on anything easily, and so I made a point of following her story…for a while, at least. In recent years, Jill Tarter’s signal fell off my own radar, and I didn’t hear much about SETI anymore, even as astrobiology became a field I followed with interest. So I was pleased to see that Scoles, a science writer with a background in astronomy, undertook an up-to-date biography of Tarter, with her participation in the project, so I could learn more about Tarter’s story, past and present.
The book examines Tarter’s childhood, education, and adult family life, as well as the highs and lows of a career in SETI. Tarter understands that we may never hear from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and she seems okay with that. Her idea has always been to try anyway, to seek data about big questions in science and remain curious about the universe. Scoles also presents the complicated timeline of the rise and fall of various SETI projects and who was funding them. She also caught me up on Tarter’s life after I met her in 2003: Tarter’s high point of broader fame came in 2009, when she won a TED prize for her work on SETI. Then, SETI waned back toward a more subdued role, as funding and scientific goals for radio telescope arrays shifted once again. Meanwhile, the new Kepler telescope project has focused on exoplanets, and increased exploration of Mars and the outer planets and moons has started closer to home. I was aware that Tarter had retired from full-time work in recent years, but she has remained a strong advocate for SETI and the efforts to explore life elsewhere in the universe.
So, what did I gain by choosing a biography about Jill Tarter as my last summer reading effort this year? I learned more about the sometimes scoffed-at life’s work of this Human of Earth. I was reminded of the ways in which Tarter’s work has found its way into some aspect of my own interests in science: the legacy of Carl Sagan, the pursuit of big ideas, public science advocacy, advancing opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups in science, connecting science across generations, and interdisciplinary science. I was reminded of the humanity of a single scientist (and woman), which is often overlooked as we consider the work of scientists, and not necessarily their lives, with their individual complexity and perspective of experiences. I was reminded about the power of trying to make a difference in the world, and to bring people together through shared experience. I was reminded of the many ways in which scientists are exploring and advocating for our only habitat, planet Earth, and the place of our home in the universe. Like the HONY project, a biography gives us an opportunity to consider the good (or bad, of course) features among our neighbors, our common ground, and our individual goals, dreams, and contributions to our world. Tarter has played a unique role in science over the past few decades. She views all of humanity as Earthlings, and she wants to see who else might be living alongside us, far away. She believes in seeking answers to the big scientific questions we’ve dreamt up. That’s a pretty good reminder for me as summer wanes and a new academic year and classes of students await, just a couple of weeks from now. What will we learn and discover together? What will our stories be? It’s time to find out.
Explore more about Jill Tarter and Making Contact:
Jill Tarter and the SETI Institute: https://www.seti.org/users/jill-tarter
Jill Tarter’s 2009 TED prize and talk: https://www.ted.com/speakers/jill_cornell_tarter
Jill Tarter–Searching for ET: An Investment in Our Long Future; presentation at NASA’s Ames Research Center (2014)
“Science Friday”: Desktop Diaries with Jill Tarter: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/desktop-diaries-jill-tarter/
Interview with Sarah Scoles about her book Making Contact: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/seti-jill-tarter/533322/
Sarah Scoles’ website: http://www.sarahscoles.com/