Photos courtesy of Sarah Scoles and Pegasus Books
“Are we alone?” This question has been on humanity’s mind since the dawn of time, when the first human looked up into the stars at night. Carl Sagan revitalized the public’s interested in astronomy during the 20th century by romanticizing the stars and what might be beyond them. His bestselling novel, Contact, and the subsequent Jodie Foster film of the same title, arguably brought the scientific pursuit of finding extraterrestrial life to the mainstream, prompting average Americans to wonder when and if we will ever find alien life or other worlds. But Sagan wasn’t the only scientist who spent years researching what was seemingly fantastical. Jill Tarter, the inspiration for Foster’s character, also dedicated her life to extraterrestrial research within the realm of astronomy, and her work has been equally vital in the search for life outside this planet.
Tarter devoted her life to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a Mountain View-based organization hellbent on finding proof that aliens exist, working at the institute for decades before retiring a few years ago. A new book, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, out now by former Astronomy Magazine editor Sarah Scoles, explores Tarter’s influential career and the challenges she faced while pursuing an objective as fleeting as signs of an ever-elusive UFO.
With chapter like “How’d A Nice Girl Like You Get Into A Field Like This,” “The Future of Alien-Hunting Telescopes,” and “The Quest For Contact,” Scoles documents Tarter’s lifelong obsession. MERRY JANE talked to Scoles to find out why Carl Sagan gets all the credit for popularizing astronomy, what Jodie Foster got right in her portrayal, and what’s next for this particularly fringe realm of scientific research. Here’s what she had to say.
MERRY JANE: What made you want to write a book based around the age old question of “Are we alone?”
Sarah Scoles: I was kind of obsessed with that question when I was a kid. I grew up close to Kennedy Space Center, and I wanted to be an astronaut and study astronomy starting around age five. I remember drawing an imaginary solar system with weird planets and making little inhabitants for each planet, suited to the planets’ conditions.
When I was 12, Contact, the movie, came out. Jodie Foster is a SETI scientist. She looks for aliens. I had no idea that was a job. Even though I’d always wanted to be an astronomer, I’d never had so many feelings — about anything, maybe, and definitely not about astronomy — as I did when I watched Jodie Foster’s character. That stayed with me into adulthood. I didn’t become an astronomer. But I never stopped thinking that “Are we alone?” was a powerful three-word phrase.
Because if we are, that’s awful and amazing and we might never know for sure. And if we’re not, that’s not-awful and amazing and we might never know for sure. When I found out, around age 18, that Foster’s character was based on a real person, it blew my mind up. When I decided I wanted to write a book and was thinking, “What do people write books about?” I realized no one had ever written something nonfictional about this nonfictional person that inspired Sagan’s fiction and the movie.
You’ve interviewed Tarter exclusively for the book. With the benefit of that familiarity, what does Jodie Foster get right in her portrayal?
Jodie Foster plays a character partly inspired by Jill Tarter. They’re not twins, and Tarter hasn’t found aliens, but Foster did in the film. Foster’s character in Contact, as well as the character in Sagan’s book of the same name, gets a lot right. When Foster was filming the movie, she and Jill would meet and talk. Foster said she knew she wasn’t going to teach anyone astronomy, so she didn’t need to know those details from Jill. What she wanted to know was what astronomers and their lives are actually like.
Jill spent much of her adult life focused on this idea that humans can (maybe) find aliens. She’s met a lot of resistance, in the political and scientific realms. And only once — when Congress completely cut SETI’s funding — did she waver in her commitment, physically and philosophically. That waver was just for a weekend or so, and on the next Monday, she and the team were out making a plan to start their own privately-funded project. A similar thing happens in Contact, and it ends with Foster slamming this slick fundraising presentation down on a corporate desk and giving this impassioned, impromptu speech. That, to me, is Jill: dedicated, prepared, and ready to throw down when necessary.
Above, a photo of scientist Jill Tarter, courtesy of Sarah Scoles and Pegasus Books
In your interviews with Tarter, what surprised you the most?
I think what caught me most off-guard was how tenuous SETI research has been for its whole history. It’s an uncertain enterprise to begin with, right? No one knows if there are aliens, or, if there are, how to find them. And on top of that uncertainty, the work has always been on the verge of one disaster or another, political or financial or technological. Nevertheless, as they say, she persisted. And what didn’t surprise me, unfortunately, were Jill’s experiences with sexism in the field, which still play out today.
What challenges did Tarter face in pursuing her scientific studies and search for extraterrestrial life?
She faced the challenge of being the only woman in her major at Cornell. She had to work on her homework by herself — while all the boys worked together — because dorms were separate. The chemical company that gave her a physics scholarship told her if she wanted to work for them, she could maybe work on perm (as in hair) chemicals. A professor basically said she only got into grad school because all the smart men had been drafted to Vietnam. But scientifically, most of the problems have been financial. Science takes money. For years, the government banned the scientific funding of SETI research, and Jill and her colleagues had to get it on their own.
Why do you think Carl Sagan gets all the credit when people think of astronomy becoming popular in the mainstream?
Before I wrote this book, and right after I was finished, I re-read Contact, which I hadn’t done since I was a teenager. He’s a great writer, a great communicator. He could make things light-years away seem understandable and uber-foreign, all at once. He gave astronomy a cultural place it had never had in the modern era. I bear no ill will toward Carl Sagan.
But it’s true that society typically and disproportionately lifts up people who, like Sagan, fit a particular narrative — in his case, the charming, handsome white guy who speaks well in front of cameras. And Sagan, because he was more visible, got more credit than astronomers hunched over computers all day, crunching numbers and publishing papers and not talking about them. But a lot of people are doing great work, and astronomy is working to diversify itself, so hopefully there will be more Sagans who come from different backgrounds in the future.
How long did the book take to write and research and what did the process teach you?
In May of 2014, I left my job as editor at Astronomy Magazine because Jill agreed to give me access. I’d never done an irresponsible thing, career-wise, up until this point, and I felt like it was my turn. So I just… quit. I found a kind of artists’-colony-slash-small-farm-slash-goat-haven near Jill’s home in Berkeley and worked half the day on the farm, in exchange for room and board, and then work on book research the rest of the time. I spent four months there — reading SETI history, SETI scientific papers, conference proceedings, and workshop reports, and interviewing Jill. And then every morning, I would get up and milk goats and water the kale.
By the end of four months, I had a couple of chapters, an 80-page book proposal, no contract, and way more notes than I knew what to do with. I left the goats and started doing freelance journalism work and interviewing Jill and colleagues more and writing the book in between. All told, it was about two years of research and writing with various levels of outside commitments, from goats to magazine stories. The most important thing I think I learned was to take someone’s recollections and combine them with newspaper clippings of the time and Google images of the place, and try to put myself there and and recreate what it was like.
Do you think Jill will ever find what she is looking for?
SETI researchers could find an alien signal in an hour, or next year, or in 2500. Or never. We might be alone. Or scientists might be searching completely the wrong way. Will humans find aliens while Jill is alive? Will humans find aliens while I’m alive? I don’t know. But I think once Jill herself started to realize the answer might likely be “no,” she shifted what she was looking for. I think later in life, she thought of her goal as more like “passing the torch.”
If she could help keep the search going during her life, leaving her able to bequeath that torch to others who wouldn’t let it go out, I think she would consider that a success. Beyond that, I think she is also looking to pass on what she calls “cosmic perspective” — the sense that the universe is big and time is long, and humans are a blip in all dimensions, so stop thinking you’re so pinnacle and also stop killing other people. I don’t know if she’ll find that, either. It may be as unlikely as finding aliens tomorrow.
"Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" is out now — order it via Pegasus Books' website
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