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After 35 years, SETI celebrates its most-famous alien hunter

Jill Tarter, who was the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in "Contact," will lead the SETI Institute's fundraising. She talked to CNET about the alien hunt, and what she'd say to them.

Some of the many individual antennas that make up the Allen Telescope Array, SETIs best tool for hunting aliens in the cosmos.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For anyone who's seen the film "Contact," the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a very noble cause. And over the last 35 years, Jill Tarter, who was the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character, has become known as the world's most famous alien hunter.

Center for SETI Research director Jill Tarter SETI Institute

For years, Tarter has been the director of the Center for SETI Research, and in that position, she has worked harder than almost anyone on the planet to try to find new friends in the skies. So far, her work, and that of her many colleagues around the world, has been unrewarded. Yet, in spite of constant battles for funding and the skepticism of those who believe we're alone in the universe, Tarter has persevered, and SETI has continued.

Now, at SETICon II on June 22 in Santa Clara, Calif., the 68-year-old Tarter will hand over her directorship reins to Gerry Harp and move into the next stage of her career -- trying to find not aliens but perhaps something even more elusive: stable funding for the institute. As her colleague, SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak, put it, "There's no guarantee that more money would allow you to solve the problem, but without the money, you" have no chance.

Last week, Tarter spoke with CNET about her new fundraising challenges, but also about the state of the alien hunt, what she would say to extraterrestrials if she ever met them, and why the best model for communication with such beings might be more like speaking with the ancient Romans than with E.T.

Q: Explain how your role at SETI is changing?
Jill Tarter: I'm changing focus. Dr. Gerry Harp, a brilliant physicist, it taking over the Center for SETI Research, and he has clever ways we can look for signals with the Allen Telescope Array.

I'm going to remain. My focus is on getting stable funding for SETI, which is something we haven't seen for the 35 years of the organization. Last year was grim. Losing funding for the Allen Telescope Array was a wake-up call.

What is the state of funding for the Allen Telescope Array?
Tarter: Very marginal. We have a new partner, SRI International, and that's great. We're using the array between 12 and 16 hours a day to search new exoplanets and extra-planetary systems. We've changed our strategy now. As opposed to picking out stars where we think there might be a planet, what we do now is we look where we know there are planets. So there are thousands of planetary systems and that's where we're pointing our telescope, which is exciting for me. That's a huge step up in terms of looking for technological life, life as we know it, which is a planetary phenomenon.

You're going to be focusing on new funding sources. What could they be?
Tarter: There are a couple things I'd like to make happen. One is getting the funding to be international in character. The majority of the funding for SETI is coming from the U.S, in part because we have tax laws incentivizing philanthropy. It isn't as benign or as supportive in other places. But there are ways of funding worthwhile projects in other countries and in other cultures. I'm going to need a group of individuals who believe SETI is too important to fail and who have been successful at fundraising and have a lot of connections. Ultimately we need to establish an endowment, which is a proven way for universities to support projects that have a long lifetime.

Are you optimistic about the fundraising?
Tarter: Yes, absolutely, by nature. We're going to make it happen. Because it would be unthinkable to have a SETI institute that wasn't doing SETI. We chartered this institution in 1984 to be a research report facility for any research having to do with the Drake Equation and in particular, my piece of it, which is looking for intelligent technological life.

Let's talk more about the research. Have been there any advances in the research in recent period that's gotten you and your colleagues particularly excited?
Tarter: The most recent game changers have been exoplanets and extremophiles. There is probably a lot more habitable real estate out there than we once would have credited. That doesn't mean it's inhabited. We're still looking for Earth 2.0. One of the nice things about pointing our radio telescope array at a planetary system is that you get all the planets at once. So if it's not Earth 2.0, but maybe a super Earth or maybe another giant moon of one of the planets, we get them all in the telescope, and we have an opportunity to make the discovery even if we don't know which world it is. Even if Kepler hasn't yet detected that world, we can still detect the technological signatures. And anybody you talk to in the exoplanet field will tell you we're really close to knowing about Earth 2.0, to being able to say, Right there, in that position in the sky, there's a planet, a rocky planet, the size of the Earth, at one astronomical unit from its solar-type star. Conditions there ought to be pretty similar to conditions here. And I think that will really make a visceral difference to people on the planet, when they can look up in the sky and know there's an analog to the Earth up there. You can't help but ask the next question, which is, does anybody live there?

Two of the many antennas used at the Very Large Array, which was used in the film 'Contact,' starring Jodie Foster. In the film, Foster's character was modeled on Jill Tarter, from SETI. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

I was told you think that speaking to aliens would be more like speaking to Romans than to E.T. Why is that?
Tarter: We talk about communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, and this "communication" word is really biased. We have a concept of two-way conversation where I say hello, and you say hello back. Over interstellar distances, it's not going to be a really snappy repartee. A better model is the sort of communication we've had with ancient Romans and Shakespeare. They've communicated forward through time an enormous amount of information. We can learn a great deal by reading what they wrote, even if we can't ask them questions in return. I think that's the better model for communication amongst species across time.

So one-way signals from the stars are the analog?
Tarter: There are a lot of assumptions there. One, that there's a signal. Two, that it contains information. Three, that we can decode it because somebody's gone to the trouble of making it anti-cryptographic. It's assumptions nested on assumptions nested on assumptions. But it's not utterly implausible to draw that kind of analogy.

What would you say to extraterrestrials if you met them?
Tarter: I have just one question: How did you manage to survive, to become an old technology. Because I wouldn't have succeeded in contacting you unless you and any other technological civilizations out there have a very long lifetime. Because the reception of the signal means that two technological civilizations are lined up not only in space close by, but they're lined up in this deep time and history of the Milky Way galaxy. So over 10 billion years, if technological civilizations sprout and then only last 100 years, you're never going to have two of them that are co-temporal. The successful detection of a signal means it's possible to survive and become an old technology, and I want to know how they did it.

What is the plan if we detect a signal?
Tarter: At SETI, the first thing we're going to do is drink a bottle of champagne. And then, as we saw in "Contact," we'll take steps to try and verify that it's really what we think it is. Another thing "Contact" copied from our protocol was that they called up another radio observatory and asked them to independently confirm what was found, because we worry a lot about a hoax, a deliberate attempt to make us think and announce that we've detected a signal. We don't want to cry wolf. We also want to get the discovery information out to an army of trained scientists and observers who can help their local media interpret what's going on. If this happens, journalists aren't all going to be able to talk to somebody at the discovery site. It's going to be too frantic and chaotic, and we want that journalist to be able to contact someone nearby, so they don't have to make up a story. The real story is going to be spectacular enough.

Also, at SETI, we won't transmit anything in reply until there's some global consensus that we should, and until the world figures out who should speak for Earth and what should they say. That's the scientific high road. That is the path we will take. Every time Freeman Dyson hears me say this, he chuckles and says, "I know that's the high road, but the moment you announce the detection of a plausible signal, anybody on the planet who can get their hands on a transmitter will start shouting whatever the heck they want. " He's probably right. Then with a twinkle in his eyes, he says, "That great disorganized cacophony might be the best characterization we could possibly give of what 21st Century Earth is really like."

And how do you feel about that?
Tarter: There's validity in what he says. And we've actually sent messages on Pioneer 10 and 11 and on Voyagers 1 and 2. And we lied through our teeth. If you look at the Voyager images that talks about who humans are, no one is ill or hungry or homeless. There's no war, no pollution, no garbage. We just speak to our idealized version of ourselves. And the reality suffers in the telling.

Anything else you'd like to add?
Tarter: We launched this citizen-scientist project, called SETI Live. We're sending small bits of data from the telescopes out to an army of citizen-scientists to help us find patterns in the noise and classify these signals, and the data that I'm sending out are from frequencies that we skip over because there are so many terrestrial signals in there that my signal processing gets confused. We're hoping people around the planet will go online help us look for signals in those bands that we're not looking at. And get involved, and think about SETI. You have to think about what it means to be human, an Earthling, on one planet in a vast cosmos, and step back and contemplate that perspective. Over time, that point of view could help trivialize the differences among humans and make us all understand that first and foremost, we're all earthlings and we're all the same. And that might help change the world even before we get the signal.