A Career Waiting for E.T. to Phone

By Dennis Overbye, New York Times

Jill Tarter once complained to me that she had no poetry in her soul.

It was 1990, and NASA was getting ready to undertake a survey of the 1,000 nearest stars, looking for radio signals from aliens. Dr. Tarter, then 46 and a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., was in charge of it.

“I can’t say what they will be like,” she sighed, when asked to speculate about the nature and motives of these putative aliens.

She was far too busy worrying about how to recognize a signal, not to mention how to avoid being fooled by the kid next door or a stray weather or spy satellite.

For some three decades, Dr. Tarter, now 68, has been the person most likely to be the first to know if we make contact with E.T. — the one who will sound the alarm, spreading the news that We Are Not Alone.

Now Dr. Tarter is stepping away from the radio telescope, retiring from her post as the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View. SETI, of course, refers to the search for intelligent life in the universe.

“The SETI Institute has a good pension plan — we’re grown-ups,” she said by telephone recently.

There will be a dinner and speeches in her honor at SETIcon, a gathering of astronomers, astronauts and science-fiction fans in Santa Clara this weekend.

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