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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So Tarter lives on a daily basis with the possibility of an imminent relationship between humanity and another intelligent community in the universe. The SETI Institute sought help from more than UN bureaucrats. "We brought in religious leaders, the media, social scientists, people who represent all the skills we don't have. They came to the conclusion that a prepared world might deal more rationally with alien contact."

A 1989 document spells out what should be done if a signal is received. Called the "Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence," this short protocol with the long name has been voluntarily adopted by all SETI research groups. If Tarter is the one to detect the first signal, she says she will make a quick courtesy call to her funders, and then notify the world.

Project Phoenix, along with other SETI projects, has agreed to not respond to signals. Tarter explains, "Receiving a message doesn't necessarily commit the planet, but certainly a transmitted reply is committing the planet. And we don't think that's within our purview as scientists."

Except the truth of the matter, Tarter admits, is that not only would there be a reply from Earth, but there would be a cacaphony of replies. "Anybody who had a transmitter would immediately respond in any way they thought best and there is no enforceable way that could not happen right now."Besides there being no consensus on what humans would say to another civilization, there is another more practical reason why Project Phoenix is only listening and not transmitting messages: moving at the speed of light is slower than you think, given the immense distances. If the receiving civilization were a hundred light years away, it would be two hundred years before we got their reply.But even though Project Phoenix hasn't sent any intentional messages, human beings have been transmitting high-frequency radio, television, and radar signals into space for more than fifty years. Light and radio waves leak into space, and our earliest TV broadcasts have reached about a thousand nearby stars. It is possible that an alien civilization, living on a planet orbiting one of these stars, might be switching on I Love Lucy.

Tarter is less concerned with what aliens are watching than with how her fellow human beings view her work here on Earth. She and her SETI colleagues have spent several decades building scientific credibility. Every ten years, NASA and the National Science Foundation hire the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to do a study of what projects should be pursued in the next decade and how they should be ranked. In each Decadal Review since 1970, SETI has risen in the rankings.

But while her fellow scientists shower her with awards, the general public is less convinced. "There are folks out there who don't think we're credible," Tarter says. "There are folks out there who think we're chasing UFOs, and who want to tell us about their thirdhand abduction experiences. Over the years we have had to put up a very steep wall that discriminates between the science that we pursue and the pseudoscience that is so popular."

A certain dread weights Tarter's voice when she speaks of the close encounters she has had with UFO-happy folks. "I ask them what evidence they have. What's the data? Show me proof. I ask them why they would believe something so incredible."

Of course there's no evidence, the abduction theorists tell her. The government is covering up these encounters. They don't want us to know about them.

Covering up an extraterrestrial visit to Earth, Tarter emphasizes, would be absolutely impossible. Secrecy is not a goal of the SETI Institute, nor of any other SETI project. "If you ever hear anything from us, expect to be given all the discovery data to analyze and look at for yourself, and make your own conclusions. This is not going to be a secret."

Tarter ignores these fanciful musings, but doesn't she wonder what the beings will look like? What kinds of technologies will they have? Will they be friends or foes?Tarter says she doesn't think much about the intelligent beings she has spent her life listening for. "People assume that we're sitting around drinking coffee and talking about these things. We're not. Maybe it's because I don't have any poetry in my soul. It doesn't do me any good to think about what might happen, because my imagination is so paltry. This is going to be alien, which means this is going to be different, not life as we know it. I'm trying to answer a question that has a yes/no answer, and that alone--getting an answer--would be so phenomenal that I don't need anything else."Tarter does believe that our extraterrestrial neighbors, if they contact us, will be from a far older, more advanced civilization. They couldn't be any younger than us and play this game; we're in our technological infancy, just now discovering the means for listening. A civilization that contacts us will most likely be beyond us technologically.

Though Tarter claims she does not indulge herself by imagining that first signal, colleague Carl Sagan did just that in his novel Contact. Moreover, Sagan allegedly based his main character, Ellie Arroway, on Jill Tarter.

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