In 1543, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus shook Western civilization to its very core when he announced that the Earth was not at the center of the universe. The way in which we viewed ourselves and the world we live in was radically and forever altered.
Even so, the task that Copernicus began continues today. And one of the most brilliant stars in this galactic educational process is astronomer Jill Tarter.
Tarter has devoted most of her life to something no less mind-bending than the search for other intelligent civilizations in the universe. Though her vision reaches far into the depths of the universe, Tarter is a refreshingly down-to-earth person. I met her on a Friday evening in her ramshackle Berkeley Hills home, which she shares with her husband, UC Berkeley astronomer Jack Welch, and which was cheerfully decorated for Christmas, though it was months past the holiday. Besides putting in long hours as an astronomer, Tarter is also a small craft pilot and a salsa dancer. She admits to having been a drum majorette in high school--because it was the only "sport" at which girls could compete--and still today I could easily picture her twirling a baton, leading a marching band. An extraordinarily youthful 57, Tarter has short blond hair, expressive hands, and boundless passion for her quest.
Last June, Tarter traveled to Vienna to address the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Tarter had one message to convey to that group: for the first time in the history of our civilization, we have the means to detect alien technologies, and it might not be a bad idea to figure out how we're going to react when we do find something out there.This is an especially thorny issue for Tarter because she might be the one doing the reacting. A founder of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, Tarter is director of the institute's largest program, Project Phoenix, which uses radio telescopes to examine the vicinities of nearby, sun-like stars, listening for artificially produced signals.
Convincing a United Nations committee that there is a strong possibility we aren't alone in the universe wasn't especially difficult. Anyone who thinks logically about the question would have to conclude that we can't be the only thinking civilization out there. As Greek philosopher Metrodorus wrote in the 4th century BC: "To consider Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field of millet, only one grain will grow." The majority of modern scientists agree with Metrodorus.
Fewer and fewer people argue with Tarter that contact is possible, even imminent. But getting anyone to address the question of how we want to respond as one civilization in a universal community is more difficult.
"I can't speak for the planet," Tarter says, "and I don't choose to. There is no global governance--the United Nations is the closest we get to it, and that's a terribly flawed model. Nevertheless, it's what we've got, so I went and told these good folks on the committee that we're building a new telescope, one that will have a much better chance of receiving a signal. Tomorrow, they could wake up and be faced with the reality of contact with another civilization."Tarter is a natural diplomat, a scientist who understands her work's cultural ramifications --which are quite literally astronomical--and is capable of communicating them. Her hope is to get the committee to start addressing the questions that are not within her skill set or knowledge. If we receive an alien signal, should we reply? If so, what should we say on behalf of Earth?"If we were ever to be successful," Tarter says, "the intelligence that we would have made contact with would be so different from humans that its existence would trivialize the differences among humans that we find so difficult. Those differences would be pallid in comparison to the human/alien differences. Contact with alien intelligence might help us to have a global civilization with a more tolerant approach to humanity."
The committee does not share Tarter's breadth of vision. "This committee has been around for 37 years," Tarter tells me, "and they're still arguing about where space begins. It is a political body par excellence."
Tarter says they responded to her "with great politeness. They put some very nice words in their minutes. They agreed to my request that the documents I presented would be put on file in the Office of Outer Space Affairs for future use, should they ever wish to consult them."
Even optimistic Tarter admits that probably not much will be done. "The only way to describe the pace of this group is glacial. I'll go back in a couple of years and say, 'Hey, remember me? Here's something new that's come up. Here's another reason to think about this. Have you done anything?'"
Tarter, whose vision reaches light years beyond most of ours, is not discouraged. Her earliest childhood memories are about refusing to accept limitations. Born an only child in Eastchester, New York in 1944, she says she grew up as her professional football-player father's son. "I went hunting and fishing with my dad every weekend, very much a tomboy, and then during the week, my mom was supposed to civilize me. She had a hard time."
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