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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Tarter first heard about the novel from Sagan's wife at a party. She took Tarter aside and said that Carl was writing a book and that Tarter might recognize one of the characters. "I think you'll like her," Sagan's wife said.

Sagan sent Tarter a prepublication copy of the book while she was observing at Arecibo. Much of the novel is set in Arecibo, and Tarter was stunned by how closely Ellie Arroway's story resembled her own life, including the early death of her father. "There were a couple of things that amazed me, details in that character that Carl didn't know about me. Ellie Arroway drove a '54 T-bird convertible --my dream car! She wasn't allowed to take shop in high school, things like that. I was beside myself. How can this be? I kept thinking, 'Carl doesn't know this!'"

Even the second half of the novel, after contact has been made, corresponds to some of Tarter's own dreams. Ellie Arroway eventually gets to take off in a spacecraft, designed by aliens, to go visit the extraterrestrial neighbors. While Tarter has not yet traveled in a rocket, one of her dearest wishes has always been to be the first woman on the moon. After receiving her PhD in astrophysics, she applied to be an astronaut but was turned down, to her great disappointment.

Tarter was pleased with how faithful the novel was to SETI and to the life of a scientist. "Another thing that was so close to home, and I was so startled to read it, was having a man claiming your work as his. That's probably not just a male/female thing. Young male scientists get abused in this way as well by senior colleagues. It's very stinging. It's one of the things you remember." Tarter declined to give specifics from her own life. "But Carl knew about my experience. I'm sure he even experienced that kind of thing himself."

There was one thing Sagan got wrong, though, according to Tarter, and she wrote him to explain. "When someone tells you you can't do something because you're female, you don't just intellectualize it. Yes, in the end, my response is, I'll figure out a way to do it anyway. But that's my end response. My first response is to feel like I've been kicked. And to be furious. And very angry. Because it's so unfair." Sagan wrote back to say that it was too late to change the story, that the book was already at the press.In 1997, the novel was made into a Hollywood movie, with Jodie Foster playing Ellie Arroway. Tarter was engaged as a consultant. "Dealing with the movie company was a marvelously educational experience. First of all, Jodie Foster was a delight. She's so intelligent, very kind, quite a powerhouse. We had these phone conversations. She would ask, 'Do astronomers have big egos?' Things like that."A film crew of 400 descended on the telescope site at Arecibo. Tarter enjoyed giving Foster a tour of her "cathedral," the big radio telescope. "The bits of the film done at Arecibo are quite gorgeous," Tarter notes.

Unfortunately, there was one gross mistake in the film. During the first kiss scene, Ellie Arroway quotes an utterly flawed equation. Appalled, Tarter alerted the producer, but he told her, "Come on, Dr. Tarter, there'll be three people in the audience that catch that. Nobody will notice it. This movie will help young women become scientists." Sagan died shortly before the completion of the film, and Tarter thought, "Carl would be turning over in his grave."

The film was dedicated to Sagan. He too had spent time on the set, and Foster told Tarter that she had been enthralled by his discourses on what life as a scientist was like. But the SETI Institute, which had been heavily involved in consulting for the film, received no screen credit. Tarter blames her naivete. "We didn't know we were supposed to have a lawyer write a letter to Warner Bros. about our credits. When I write a scientific paper, I acknowledge the people who helped." Still, Tarter seems happy with the fairly accurate picture Contact delivers about SETI research.

While the chances of Tarter getting the opportunity to travel to the home of an extraterrestrial civilization are remote, her chance of being on hand to detect an alien signal will increase significantly in the coming decade. Project Phoenix has obtained funding to build an array of radio telescopes just north of Mt. Lassen that will be far more powerful than any SETI search tools used to date. The Allen Telescope Array, named for its chief funder, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, will be the first telescope dedicated solely to SETI research. No longer will Tarter and her colleagues be limited to the forty days a year. The new dedicated array, built with UC Berkeley, will search 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will have the ability to study different areas of the sky at once, as many as a million nearby stars at a time. In the same time it takes Project Phoenix to observe a thousand stars from one to three GHz, the Allen Telescope Array can observe 100,000 stars from one to ten GHz.

Tarter says, "We'll either succeed gloriously or we'll fall flat on our faces. But no one expects to stumble. We'll make it work. We intend to succeed. It will change how we do radio astronomy."

But Tarter is already planning the next, even better, observatory, which she says must be built on the other side of the moon. She calls this next step a "necessity," explaining that "there is so much noise in the sky, we will need to do this." However, she doesn't see it happening in the near future, though such a telescope is already technologically feasible. It won't be done, she says, unless there's some reason other than a scientific one. "There's no political will for human exploration at the moment. If we go back to the moon for colonization or resource usage, perhaps we can keep part of the moon as a scientific preserve."

Tarter manages to balance her long-range vision with pragmatism, and her ability to jump fast with an almost unimaginable patience. She's never lost her desire to search deeper into the universe, to examine larger portions of the sky: "There is," she says, "no end to our appetite."

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