SETI: Science Fact, Not Fiction

Presented by:

Jill Tarter
Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI
SETI Institute, California

Friday, April 27, 2001 - 8:00 p.m.
104 Keller Building - Penn State University - University Park, PA

  Aliens abound on movie screens, but do they exist in the real universe? Intelligence is very difficult to define and impossible to directly detect over interstellar distances. SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is actually an attempt to detect evidence of another distant technology. If we find such evidence, we will infer the existence of intelligent technologists. Our means of searching changes as our technology matures. Guiseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison ended their 1959 seminal paper on SETI with the statement, "The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero." This remains true today.

Dr. Tarter received her undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics from Cornell University and her Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley, where her major field of study was theoretical high energy astrophysics. As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, she became involved in the beginning stages of a small search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations using the Hat Creek Observatory 85-foot telescope. That project, SERENDIP, underwent many stops and starts and overhauls (and is still ongoing), and it provided a natural introduction to the newly formed Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Program Office at NASA Ames Research Center, where Dr. Tarter was pursuing an NRC Resident Associateship.

As a Principal Investigator for the non-profit SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA, Dr. Tarter served as Project Scientist for NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), until its termination by Congress in October 1993. As such, she had the opportunity to meld together old and new engineering skills with a knowledge of the observable universe, in order to conduct and plan for thorough observations of the sky through a set of narrow band and pulse sensitive filters never before systematically employed by astronomers.

Also, she is considered by many to be the real-life model for the character Ellie Arroway in the Carl Sagen book, "Contact," and the part played by Jodie Foster in the movie.

Today Dr. Tarter serves as the Director for Project Phoenix, the SETI Institute's privately funded continuation of the Targeted Search portion of HRMS. In September 1997 the Board of Trustees of the SETI Institute appointed Dr. Tarter to a new endowed position at the SETI Institute: the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI.

Dr. Tarter travels globally to present lectures and papers at numerous scientific symposia and colloquia. She has published dozens of technical articles, has been elected to many professional societies, and has served on a number of scientific advisory committees.

In September 1989 Dr. Tarter received the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to the field of exobiology, and in particular to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, by Women in Aerospace, a professional association in Washington, DC. In March 1993 she received two Public Service Medals from NASA and a Group Achievement Award for her contributions to NASA's HRMS Project. In February 1997 Dr. Tarter received the Chabot Observatory Person of the Year Award, and in November 1998 she received the Women of Achievement Award, Science & Technology category, presented by the Women's Fund and the San Jose Mercury News.

Dr. Tarter is married to Dr. William J. "Jack" Welch, Director of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory at UC Berkeley. She has one daughter of her own and three stepchildren. Her hobbies include sewing, handicrafts, small-scale construction projects, absolutely every form of dancing, and flying small airplanes.

  For more information contact Linda Becker at 814-865-0184 or

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