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Tarter's beloved father died when she was twelve years old, but she remembers very well an important conversation she had with him when she was only eight. He sat the young Jill down in the kitchen and told her, "You know, you're really getting to be older, and you need to spend more time with your mom and do feminine things."
In tears, the little girl asked, "Why do I have to do one thing or the other? Why can't I do both?"
Her father told her that there really wasn't a reason she couldn't do whatever she wanted to do as long as she was willing to work hard enough. "What do you want to do?" he asked.
Without hesitation, she replied, "I want to be an engineer."
She admits now that she had no idea what engineers did, but that she chose this career because it was something only men did. "So," she concludes, "I got an engineering degree."Tarter was the only woman out of 300 students in the freshman engineering class at Cornell University. She says the experience was "character-building" and describes an incident during the first week of classes. She was sitting in a large lecture hall, listening to a professor, when she noticed a tittering that began behind her and then moved up the tiers of the lecture hall. As the laughter reached a crescendo, the professor stopped his lecture to ask what was going on."Somebody finally had the nerve to stand up and point out my cardigan sweater, which I had draped over the back of my chair, revealing the label," Tarter says. "My mother was a fabulous housekeeper and a really attentive mom, so she had sent me off to college with little name tags sewn in all my clothing. Well, she'd sewn 'Jill Cornell,' my maiden name, over the sweater's label that said '100 percent virgin wool' so that it read '100 percent virgin Jill Cornell.'" Tarter decided she could make it through anything after that day.
As it turned out, engineering didn't interest Tarter all that much. She hated the way that you didn't get any brownie points for innovative solutions to problems. "In engineering it was much better to use an already understood solution to solve a new problem. That was more cost-effective. But it didn't suit me. I told myself: If engineers are as boring as my professors, I have to do something else." And Tarter wasn't willing to wait around; from her father's early death, she learned that there isn't always a tomorrow, that opportunities must be seized. "I learned that very quickly, in a very hard way." She began looking for "more interesting problems," and in 1967, came upon a course in star formation. Tarter moved to Berkeley and enrolled in the PhD astrophysics program.
Then, "a marvelously fortunate accident" led Tarter to SETI. Stuart Bowyer, an X-ray astronomer at UC Berkeley, had the "just brilliant" idea to look for extraterrestrial intelligence by doing a piggyback experiment, recycling data from other experiments and analyzing it for alien signals.
A brilliant idea, but Bowyer couldn't get funding. Someone donated an antiquated computer, and someone else remembered that Jill Tarter knew how to program that particular model. So Bowyer showed up in Tarter's office one day and dropped a report on her desk, written by SETI pioneer Barney Oliver. The report described building a large array of telescopes to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
"For me, this was 'Eureka!' I read it cover-to-cover without stopping. And this is a thick, difficult document. I was so turned on. What was really striking to me was that I lived in the first generation, after a millennia of philosophers asking this question, that could actually do the first experiments to try and answer the question. I found that just fascinating. Everything else paled. I couldn't imagine a more interesting scientific career, and I still feel that way."
According to Frank Drake, the first SETI researcher and author of Is Anyone Out There?, it was terrifically brave of Tarter, who was not only just a graduate student but also a female scientist, to take up the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In the late '60s, adopting such a fringe project could have derailed a career that had barely begun. But Tarter has been driven since the moment she read Oliver's document.
From her first work with that antiquated computer, using secondhand data, Tarter's career has been, as she describes it, a roller-coaster ride. In the early years, her work was supported by NASA, but that support abruptly ended when, in 1993, Nevada Senator Richard Bryan convinced Congress to pull the plug on SETI, though the cost of the program was less than 0.1 percent of NASA's annual budget. "It felt like someone had put a knife in my belly," Tarter says. For two tumultuous weeks, she and her colleagues fought to retain their funding. They lost the battle on a Friday. "I came home that night and said to my husband, 'Don't leave me alone this weekend. Don't leave me around any sharp objects.'"
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