Quest for Contact 

Jill Tarter has spent most of her life pursuing the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Now, nourished by a new wave of funding from high-tech philanthropists, she and her colleagues are listening harder than ever.

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Before the weekend was over, Tarter had characteristically rebounded. One of her colleagues telephoned and said, "If what we were doing on Thursday made sense, then it's going to make sense again on Monday. We just have to figure out a way to keep this funded." On Monday, they started researching how to raise funds.

Fortunately, the SETI Institute already had been established as a not-for-profit organization, so the basis for philanthropic giving was already in place. Barney Oliver, in his mid-seventies, began a second career of fund-raising. According to Tarter, many people owed him favors, and he'd never cashed in those chips. Thanks to Oliver, Project Phoenix was born, and Tarter and her colleagues were able to continue their search. The SETI Institute, which now oversees about 35 projects in addition to Phoenix, is funded by a few major donors, such as William Hewlett, David Packard, Gordon Moore, Paul Allen, and Barney Oliver, as well as many other individuals and foundations.As director of Project Phoenix, Tarter wears a number of different hats, including those of fund-raiser and educator, but she insists on her forty days a year observing at the large radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. "I don't care what title they give me, or what else is in my job description, that's the reward. That's the fun part."Each night at Arecibo, Tarter takes the helm of the huge telescope from midnight until six in the morning. In truth, most of the time it's "just a babysitting job." The silicon intelligence makes most of the decisions and crunches all the data. "The thing I like about it is that it's a very focusing experience. While I'm there, there is no question that observing is the highest priority task I have. When I'm home, I'm all over the map; it's very hard to focus on one thing for any length of time. When I'm observing, that comes first, and it's so satisfying to be wholly involved in one activity."

The search program at Arecibo has been refined over the years so that "now it's really pretty slick, lots of bells and whistles. In the beginning, we had to run it by hand. Now it's smarter than we are." Project Phoenix is the only SETI (a term that is now equivalent to "biology" or "chemistry") project doing a targeted search. This means that rather than looking at big swaths of the sky, specific stars are selected as more likely candidates for housing intelligent life: Each targeted star is the subject of a five-minute observation. "We work at a statistical threshold of false alarms where noise alone has the ability to trigger and successfully get through the filters we've set up. Typically, in one five-minute observation, the system will detect from a few to a few thousand signals, depending on what portion of the spectrum we're on. Those signals get looked up automatically on a database."

A second telescope also observes the same star. If both telescopes pick up the potential signal, there is a moment of great excitement. The automatic observing program will interrupt itself and move both telescopes to double-check the signal. Tarter and her colleagues gather around the computer screen, hoping that this time it really is ET calling.

"We've had a couple of spectacular false alarms," Tarter laughs, "but it's been because we'd lost a second telescope."

Should a signal ever be confirmed by both telescopes, Tarter will call yet another observatory, farther to the west. "I make a personal phone call and ask for discretionary telescope time from the director to confirm the source of our signal. The reason we take this last precautionary observation is because we always worry about a hoax, and the best place to do a hoax would be to put it in our software. So we have somebody confirm the signal with software we didn't write and equipment we didn't build."

Neither Project Phoenix nor any other SETI project has yet detected a signal from an extraterrestrial technology. Asked what keeps her going, year after year, Tarter says simply, "It's the potential. That's intrinsically the most exciting thing."

Besides, she points out, the search has only just begun. Out of the billions of stars in our galaxy, fewer than a thousand have been scrutinized with high sensitivity. There are roughly 400 billion other stars in our galaxy, and nearly 100 billion other galaxies. From Tarter's perspective, it's not at all surprising that we haven't yet detected signals.

Tarter emphasizes that her primary goal is the continuation of the quest. In her lifetime, she may or may not witness a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, but she intends to provide the funding into the future "so that this exploratory process can continue for as long as it has to. My personal goal is to raise a couple of hundred million dollars as an endowment fund so that the income can allow future generations to do this until they are successful in making contact, or humanity comes to the consensus that, for all practical purposes, we are alone."

Tarter also wants to make sure those generations understand the ramifications of such a search. She has a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a year-long high school curriculum on interdisciplinary science. With a twinkle, she notes, "Just because I never do anything controversial, I chose evolution as the overarching theme for this curriculum, starting with evolution of the universe, planets, life, and technology."No matter how many hats Tarter wears in her position as director, she is first and foremost a scientist, which means she refuses to speculate. Though she has based her career on searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, she insists that she has no preconceived answers. Does she really believe it's possible that we're the only intelligent civilization in the universe?"The universe is stranger than we give it credit for, so although that would be a strange answer, it's possible," Tarter says. "I have a goal to answer a question, and I don't know what that answer is. Obviously, I'm predisposed, from what we know about how life evolved here on Earth, to see how that process could happen somewhere else. And everything we've learned in the years since I began graduate school has made that seem more probable rather than less. I like [Belgian scientist] Cristian DeDuve's statement that 'Life is a cosmic imperative.' Biology is really just complicated chemistry, and given similar situations it will happen elsewhere."

With new planets being discovered almost weekly, Tarter says, "We're on the verge of being able to find solar-system analogues. If after ten years we haven't seen any, that would be interesting. But I think we probably will."

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