Interview: Sarah Scoles on Jill Tarter, the inspiration for Contact's Ellie Arroway

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You may not know the name Jill Tarter, but you probably know who she is. She served as inspiration for fellow scientist Carl Sagan's protagonist in Contact. Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, was based on the esteemed astronomer, and the actress even consulted with Tarter for her performance.

Jill Tarter has been many things to many people: a force to be reckoned with, a woman who elbowed her way through school when women didn't go into STEM careers, the person who is singularly responsible for the fact that SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, even exists. She was often disrespected by her peers, as trying to communicate with aliens still isn't exactly the most respected scientific endeavor, but Tarter stuck to her guns and has left an incredible legacy to a new generation of scientists, especially women. Now, former editor of Astronomy magazine Sarah Scoles has written the definitive biography of this pioneer, in cooperation with Tarter herself, and she was kind enough to give us a few minutes of her time to chat about Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which released on July 4.

When and how did you first decide to write a biography of Jill Tarter? How did you first become familiar with her?

I first got the idea to write a biography of Jill Tarter sometime in fall of 2013. At the time, I was working as an editor at Astronomy magazine. In my spare time, I’d been attempting to write a novel, because I wanted to and because I studied fiction writing in graduate school, so writing fiction is supposed to be what you do with that. But I found that I just wasn’t good with the in-between parts — what happens between the setup and the climax and the climax and the conclusion. So I thought, "Well, if I were writing nonfiction, I wouldn't have to make those in-between parts up! I'd just have to shape the events that already existed into some kind of sensible storyline." And then one day, I was throwing sticks into the Milwaukee River, and my dog was bringing them back to me, and I was thinking about what kind of nonfiction book I might try to write -- what topic I would still like after 250 or 300 pages of writing -- and I thought about what had first and most caught my attention in the world of astronomy. And that was the movie Contact (and, later, the book), and then the discovery that the main character was based on this real person named Jill Tarter.

Contact is one of those movies I can watch over and over again. Are you a fan of it?

I'm a huge fan of the movie Contact. It came out when I was just barely 12 years old--you know, very impressionable. I'd been interested in astronomy — and telling my parents I was going to be both an astronomer and an astronaut — for as long as I could remember. But, even though I loved space, I had never been quite as compelled by it as I was when I watched Contact. Contact taught me that there is this whole field of astronomy — radio astronomy — where scientists search for signals our eyes can't see. Which meant this whole invisible universe existed that I didn't know about (turns out, most of the universe is invisible, and I didn't know very much at all). And Contact taught me that scientists — in addition to asking small, specific questions — also ask big ones. Not just "Are we alone?" but also "How did we get here? How do we fit into the universe?" And then, at the head of all that, there was this smart, stubborn woman, who really believed in the value of her alien-hunting when most others didn't. I had probably never seen a scientist depicted realistically, let alone a female scientist, let alone a female SETI scientist. That was a lot of revelations for one movie.

Jill Tarter

Jill Tarter

What was your research process like for Making Contact? Who did you talk to in order to get a full picture of Tarter’s life?

I worked on researching and writing Making Contact for about two years. I interviewed Tarter for hours at a time, once or twice a month, during that time. We also went through all of her family photo albums and a boatload of file cabinets with old scientific papers, printed-out emails, conference proceedings, grant proposals -- things like that. I went on vacation with her once, and traveled with her and her colleagues and students to the Allen Telescope Array [a dedicated SETI telescope in Northern California] three times. I lurked around the SETI Institute a good deal. All of that gave me Tarter's perspective on Tarter, and also allowed me to watch her interact with others and form my own perspective on her. To form my own perspective on SETI, I, of course, I did my own outside research, looking at archival newspaper clippings, old images of places that appear in the book, SETI journal articles, NASA conference reports, and the other books that people have written about SETI. I wanted to be able to re-create scenes I wasn't there for, but using true information.

Over the course of writing the book, I got to hear the perspective of most SETI Institute scientists on their part of the search, and talked to some of her colleagues who worked closely with her about not just the science but about her as a person. I spent a lot of time with her husband, Jack Welch, who has been a key engineering figure in SETI. I spoke to her first husband, Bruce Tarter; her daughter, Shana; representatives of another SETI project called Breakthrough Listen; seminal exoplanet and astrobiology scientists; NASA execs old and new; and students who have worked with her. People like that, who have worked closely enough with her to have a sense of Tarter the person as well as Tarter the scientist. Unfortunately, many of the people who were around during SETI's early years, and Tarter's early years in SETI, aren't on this planet anymore.

What was it like working with Tarter, an inspiration to so many, so closely to get this book written? What are your impressions of her?

Well, when you work that closely with anyone, they have to stop seeming like a kind of science celebrity and start seeming like a regular human being, especially if you're going to try to write about them in a realistic way. It was fascinating to learn--from her and my own research -- how the SETI sausage has been made throughout history.

Tarter is sometimes all business, very focused on getting things done, and so she can sometimes appear brusque. It took her a long time to learn how to work with and supervise people, and depending on who you ask, she didn't quite master that. And she is just as stubborn as Contact would have a person believe! But she does care a great deal, I think, about people and also about this planet. That was something I learned: I kind of thought she would be so focused on extraterrestrial topics that she wouldn't be very focused on terrestrial ones. But, for example, when I visited Lassen National Park with Tarter and the SETI Institute interns, she stopped to read every interpretive sign, and she also sat and calculated how hot a certain lava rock would have been if it took (as the sign said) months to cool.

Sarah Scoles

I’m going to ask you a question that you pose in the book: What do you think should be in a message to extraterrestrials?

I actually think a content-free message might be the ideal message to extraterrestrials. Even if we spent a bunch of time encoding information, and trying to make it understandable to aliens that share no culture, history, or language with us, there's no guarantee they'd be able to decode it. But, really, what do we most want to know from aliens? Arguably, I'd say, just "Are you out there?" And a simple beacon or ping — just a signal, like a cosmic radar transmitter — would get that point across, whether the message is from them to us or from us to them.

What place do you think SETI has in our society? Is it important that we search for extraterrestrial intelligence, especially now that we know how common exoplanets are?

A lot of people say, very understandable, that SETI doesn't help life on Earth, and Earth (I agree!) has a ton of its own problems. And those problems require money and attention, and money and attention given to SETI absolutely do take (a relatively small) amount of money and attention away from them. But I also think there are scientific topics, like SETI, that don't necessarily have direct relevance to on-the-ground earthly matters but that nevertheless are important. SETI addresses some of humans' most fundamental questions, many of which seem more philosophical than scientific -- like "What's humans' place in the universe?" and "How does life come to be?" And while the study can seem off base while scientists aren't detecting anything, can you imagine the impact on society if they did detect something?

New scientific discoveries -- the abundance of exoplanets, the huge variety of very strange life on Earth (tardigrades!) -- have made the universe seem, to me, more life-friendly. After all, aliens would have lots of places to live, and they could likely occupy real estate we'd find distasteful, if all of this planet's extreme life is an indication. So while I can't say that I think intelligent life is or isn't out there, I do think it would be a very strange universe if all of the above were true and we were still alone.

Do you think the discovery of these exoplanets, and rise of public interest in space, has changed how the public sees such endeavors?

I think most people, if you asked them, would say that they do believe They're Out There. And, in fact, a recent poll did ask them and find that, at least in the U.S., Britain, and Germany. People are increasingly familiar with the idea that our solar system is one of many (many), and that the universe is huge and full of weirdness. I think the idea that aliens exist -- somewhere, even if we don't know how to find them -- seems, to the general public, more non-fi-sci than sci-fi at this point.

Thanks to Sarah Scoles for taking the time to talk to us!