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Looking up with SETI's Jill Tarter in her search for extraterrestrial life

Courtesy of SETI

If you think back to the 1997 film Contact, you’ll recall a scene where Jodie Foster, playing alien-hunting astronomer Ellie Arroway, lies on her car hood with huge headphones on her ears, in a field of towering white satellite dishes. She’s waiting for something. A signal. She lies still, her eyes closed. And suddenly, she hears something, the sounds of something – someone  – beyond the earth, communicating with her.

Well, that was just a movie, based on the novel Contact by Carl Sagan. But the character of Ellie Arroway was not all fictional. It was based on a real live female astronomer, Jill Tarter. Tarter’s a pioneer for American women astronomers, and the outgoing director of the SETI Institute. Since she was a little girl, she’s been fascinated by what else, or who else is out there. And she still is.

JILL TARTER: In the past, we’d ask the priests or the shamans or whoever we thought was wise, and they’d tell us what we should believe. In the middle of the 20th century, we suddenly had at our disposal these tools for radio astronomy that actually evolved out of the radars we developed for World War II. Suddenly now, these tools could allow us to do an experiment, could allow us to make observations to try and find out what the answer is; not what somebody tells us to believe.

Click the player above to hear the full interview. If you’d like to join the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence, you can visit the Team SETI website here.

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.