Astronomer Jill Tarter is the holder of the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI. She is one of the few researchers to have devoted her career to hunting for signs of sentient beings elsewhere, and there are few aspects of this field that have not been affected by her work. Jill was the lead for Project Phoenix, a decade-long SETI scrutiny of about 750 nearby star systems, using telescopes in Australia, West Virginia and Puerto Rico. While no clearly extraterrestrial signal was found, this was the most comprehensive targeted search for artificially generated cosmic signals ever undertaken. Now Jill heads up the Institute’s efforts to build and operate the Allen Telescope Array, a massive new instrument that will eventually comprise 350 antennas, each 6 meters in diameter. This telescope will be able to enormously increase the speed, and the spectral search range, of the Institute’s hunt for signals. A subset of the full array will begin operations in the Fall of 2007.
Indeed, being as much of an icon of SETI as Jill is, perhaps it is not surprising that the Jodie Foster character in the movie “Contact” is largely based on this real-life researcher.