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What Every Astronomer Asks: Are We Alone In The Universe?

Dr. Jill Tarter, 2009 TED prizewinner, at the Allen Telescope Array
Flickr Photo/TED Conference (CC-BY-NC-ND)
Dr. Jill Tarter, 2009 TED prizewinner, at the Allen Telescope Array

Recent astronomical discoveries make this an especially exciting time to ponder the potential for life on other planets. Throughout her career Dr. Jill Cornell Tarter has sought to illuminate that inquiry.

Tarter is an American astronomer and the former director of the Center for SETI  Research in Mountain View, California. SETI refers to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. 

Her work was represented in Carl Sagan’s novel, "Contact." The character Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster in the film version, was inspired by Tarter.

To explain why she became a scientist Tarter tells the story of when she was an 8-year-old tomboy who loved to spend time with her dad, fishing, camping and building things. Her father sat her down one day to say it was time for her to start doing "girl" things with her mother.

She remembers tearing up and asking why she couldn’t do it all? Her father responded,  "Well, I guess if you’re willing to work hard enough, you can do anything you want."

Tarter went on to do just that. She says she knew then she wanted to become a scientist, and that, for her, “Science is never having to grow up and stop asking: Why?”

Tarter’s father died when she was 12. Later in life, at a conference of women in science, she discovered that more than half the women present, all of whom credited their  father as the major influence of their early lives, had lost their dad at a young age.

Tarter says, “We came up with the explanation that we all learned the carpe diem lesson: to seize opportunities when they arise because they won’t always be there.”

In 2004, Time Magazine named Tarter one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. She received a TED prize in 2009. And Asteroid 74824 Tarter was named in her honor.

Tarter spoke at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus on March 3. Her appearance was made possible by the UW Graduate School and the Jessie and John Danz Fund.  Thanks to series director Yvette Moy for this recording.

Year started with KUOW: 2006