When astronomer Jill Tarter was awarded the TED Prize in 2009, she was given the opportunity to make a wish big enough to change the world, and she did: “I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” Now Tarter is laying the groundwork to make her own wish come true, by reorganizing the way the scientific community works and how we Earthlings search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. Tarter — whose life and work inspired the movie Contact — chatted with FastCompany.com as she rode shotgun up northern California’s Interstate 5 on her way to — where else? — the observatory. –Zachary Wilson
Fast Company: You made quite a big wish at TED in 2009. How are you planning to accomplish it?
Jill Tarter: We’re essentially asking the world to help in a whole different creative way. We’re inviting the really bright, geeky students and digital processing experts around the world to help us develop algorithms to look for signals that are far more complex than what we look for now. Then we’ll take the best of those algorithms and work on them to try and make them work fast enough so we can actually get them working in real time on the telescope. It’ll change the way we actually do the searches.
FC: So essentially you’re crowd-sourcing.
JT: Yes. We’ve always been constrained by technology availability and the cost of the task. When we were stuck with special-purpose software, only a small group could do it. But now that commodity servers and computing are fast enough, we can stop building our own hardware and move into this standard environment. Now our job is writing good software, and that’s something anyone can do. We can invite anyone who can program to help.
FC: Besides programming, how else are you opening SETI up to volunteers?
JT: It’s usually the case that once you know what you’re looking for, you
can write an algorithm to run on a machine that will do it better than a
human can. But when you don’t know what you’re looking for, when you’re
just trying to find anomalies, it may be that humans can help us with
that detection problem. We want to get the raw data out of the observatories, passed in front of volunteer citizen scientists to look for anomalies, then anything they say they find we want to have vetted at a couple of tiers of more experienced observers. Anything that survives that process we want to compare to known classes of interfering signals, and anything that survives all of that, we want to come back to the telescope, all within just a few minutes. Four minutes or so.
FC: It’s sounds really difficult to carry out, technically.
JT: It’s a huge technical problem because it has to happen in near real time. We don’t know how we’re going to do this yet. Right now we have a particular type of 2-D visualization that we use, but it may not be best for the public, so we’d like help with the data visualization. Then there’s building the platform that gets this out. And how do we make it interesting enough so that people will do it for more than two minutes? Can we turn this into a game? Can we make this an iPhone app? We’re trying, but we’re really just getting started.
FC: How do you plan to get more people involved?
JT: The best model we have for this so far is the MMOG, the massively multiplayer online game, so we’re going to try to build on that. And we’re going to have to come up with some kind of reward, something that people can post on their social networks that says: Hey, I actually found something out there that was real. Today the public is more likely to be going along for this ride than it might have in the past, when they weren’t actually involved in the signal detection.
FC: The science community seems like a man’s world, but you’ve been in it for decades. What’s it really like?
JT: You saw the movie Contact, right? It’s a bit like that. There are not enough X chromosomes around in many scientific fields. I know it makes a huge difference if you have somebody you can look at and say, “Oh, that could be me.” One of the reasons I even got into engineering in the first place was because I didn’t see any other women doing it. I know how important it is to be out there and be seen as someone who is proof that it can be done. I tell all young people that science is a fabulous career because you never have to grow up. You never have to stop asking why. You get to answer your own questions, which is something you don’t get in any other career.
FC: Beyond the green-guy searching, what’s your message?
JT: My wish was to get all Earthlings involved in the search, because it gives me, and SETI in general, an opportunity to change their point of view. People realize they are part of one tiny little planet in a vast cosmos that may have other intelligent life out there, and that probably means that all of us here on Earth are far more similar to one another than Earthlings are to another intelligent forms out there. So even if we don’t detect a signal, I think we can get people to internalize this Earthling concept and trivialize the differences among humans that we’re willing to kill each other over. Anyway, that’s my evangelical platform.