Famed alien hunter quits research center

Wednesday , May 23, 2012 - 10:33 AM

Astronomer Jill Tarter...

Maria L. La Ganga

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Astronomer Jill Tarter -- perhaps the best-known, real-life alien hunter around -- is stepping down as head of the Center for SETI Research, halting a 35-year career of actively searching for extraterrestrial intelligence.

In his 1985 novel "Contact," Carl Sagan based the main character, Dr. Ellie Arroway, on the now 68-year-old Tarter. In a 1997 movie starring Jodie Foster, according to the website IMDB, Arroway "finds conclusive radio proof of intelligent aliens, who send plans for a mysterious machine."

Tarter has yet to intercept a radio signal from another planet, although she leaves her post with the hope that earthlings will someday connect with life out there somewhere.

As for her next mission, Tarter said, she will be hunting for money to continue the quest -- one she believes is as important as any research program around. She and her colleagues at the SETI center are optimistic enough to keep champagne on hand at all times for when contact is finally achieved.

And just whom, or what, does Tarter think Earth's scientists will connect with?

"We look for the technology," Tarter said in an interview days before announcing Tuesday that she was stepping down. "If we find it, we presume the existence of technologists at some point. And what does that tell us? It means that anything that we can find -- the way we're going about it now -- is probably not going to be at the microbial scale. Because you have to build things."

A recent lecturer at the Center for SETI research talked about "whether mathematics will inevitably be a language for communication among alien species," Tarter said. "That's often touted, that we will have math in common. We will have physics in common."

SETI Institute physicist Gerry Harp will succeed Tarter as director of the Center for SETI Research. Tarter's career will be celebrated in June at SETIcon II, a convention that explores the future of the search for other life in the universe.

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(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times

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