The inspiring story of an important American astronomer who co-founded the SETI Institute, which was created “to study all aspects of the existence, formation, and evolution of life in the universe.
Reputable astronomers and other scientists have searched for extraterrestrial transmissions since the 1960s. Educated readers might name Carl Sagan as the lead figure, but that role belongs to Jill Tarter (b. 1944), an impressive pioneer who receives an admiring, insightful biography by Scoles, a former editor of Astronomy magazine who worked at the observatory where the first SETI project was implemented. “If there’s just us, that seems an awful waste of space,” is a line from the 1997 film Contact, delivered by Jodie Foster, a character partly based on Tarter, and both the real and fictional astronomer remain an inspiration to women entering science. The sole woman among 300 in her undergraduate class, Tarter did significant work in astronomy before becoming fascinated with stellar radio emissions that might indicate intelligent life. Although not the first, her persistence, imagination, and charisma have made her an iconic figure in the search for extraterrestrial life. Plucking an alien transmission from the avalanche of human and natural radio emissions is technically demanding, requiring sophisticated engineering. NASA provided modest support until Congress killed it. The Air Force pays to use its detectors, but fundraising preoccupies SETI leaders, Tarter included. When she began, scientists knew only one solar system and considered life a delicate phenomenon. Now we know that our galaxy contains 100 billion planets, and plenty of earthly organisms (“extremophiles”) live in ice, boiling water, miles under the earth or sea, and amid toxic chemicals and radiation. Astrobiology has become a highly respected profession.
Scoles has done her homework, so readers will both understand and sympathize with Tarter, who has become an icon and role model despite pursuing a goal she knows she will never achieve.