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Dr. Jill Cornell Tarter

Jill Cornell Tarter, Ph.D., FAAAS is an astrophysicist and astronomer, known for her work on the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI). She holds the Emeritus and Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences. Jill is the former director of the Center for SETI Research and has been with SETI since 1984.

She earned her Bachelor of Engineering Physics degree as an undergraduate at Cornell University and as the only woman in the engineering program in 1966. Her professional interest in astronomy emerged as she pursued her Master’s degree in 1971 and her Ph.D. in 1975 at the University of California at Berkeley. It was in her Ph.D. thesis where she coined the term “brown dwarf” while researching small-mass objects that fail to stably fuse hydrogen.

Because she knew how to program the ancient mini-computer being used to analyze the data, she became involved in SERENDIP, a search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, which was piggybacking on more conventional experiments at the Hat Creek Observatory. The project’s name was appropriate in more ways than one.

Jill’s participation ended up being beneficial. At Hat Creek, she came across the Cyclops Report, which detailed the search for extraterrestrial life up to that point. Suddenly she realized, “It was the most interesting question there could be,” and she was hooked.

She was Project Scientist for NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) in 1992 and 1993 and subsequently Director of Project Phoenix (HRMS reconfigured) under the SETI Institute. She was co-creator with Margaret Turnbull of the HabCat in 2002, a principal component of Project Phoenix.

Jill has published hundreds¬†of technical papers and lectures extensively both on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the need for proper science education. Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to design and build the Allen Telescope Array and to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science of SETI. She had spent 35 years in the quest for extraterrestrial life when she announced her retirement in 2012.

In 2011, Jill delivered a talk, Intelligent Life in the Universe: Is Anybody Out There?, at the first Starmus Festival in the Canary Islands. The Festival, founded by astronomer Garik Israelian, was a blend of astronomy, allied sciences, music, and art. Jill subsequently joined the Starmus Board of Directors, along with astrophysicist and Queen founding guitarist Brian May, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and others. Her 2011 talk was published in the book Starmus: 50 Years of Man in Space.

In May 2013, the Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2013 was introduced into Congress. Jill was listed by one commentator as a possible nominee for the position of Science Laureate if the act were to pass.

In 2017, science journalist Sarah Scoles published Jill’s biography and a history of SETI, called Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Jill’s astronomical work is illustrated in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. In the film version of Contact, the protagonist Ellie Arroway is played by Jodie Foster. Jill conversed with the actress for months before and during filming, and Arroway was largely based on her work. She has also been featured in John Boswell’s Symphony of Science music video, The Poetry of Reality — An Anthem for Science.

Jill was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by Women in Aerospace in 1989. She received two NASA Public Service Medals, one at Ames Research Center and one at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC, and an HRMS Group Achievement Award in 1993. In 1994, Jill was elected a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and was awarded the Telluride Tech Festival Award of Technology in 2001.

Jill was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002 and a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences in 2003. She received the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award in 2003 and Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004. Asteroid 74824 Tarter was also named after her. She was awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization (2005), and the 2009 TED Prize. In 2002, Discover magazine recognized her as one of the 50 most important women in science. She was awarded the Guardian of the Year Award at Lifeboat Foundation in 2019. As well, Jill is a member of the CuriosityStream Advisory Board.

Jill grew up in New York State and graduated from Eastchester High School in 1961. Later she was elected to its alumni association’s hall of fame in 2001. Prior to her father’s death, when she was twelve years old, he was her early inspiration by encouraging her curiosity when she resisted suggestions that she follow pursuits considered more appropriate for a girl and announced that she wanted to be an engineer.

Watch The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers | Jill Tarter (PBSLearning Media) and Jill Tarter: Different Than the Other Sons (PBS).

Watch Jill at Chicago Ideas on Future of Intelligence: Human, Machine and Extraterrestrial, the TED2009 Talk Join the SETI Search with Jill, Alien Hunting: SETI Scientists on the Search for Life Beyond Earth | WIRED25, and Astronomer Jill Tarter Answers Alien Questions From Twitter for Tech Support at WIRED.

Listen to Ask An Astrobiologist with Jill, Monocle’s Interview with Jill, It Takes a Cosmos to Make a Human, and NPR’s Jill Tarter: A Scientist Searching For Alien Life.

Read The Cosmic Haystack Is Large. Read Jill Tarter Believes …we have company in the universe, and we should find it. Read It Takes a Cosmos to Make a Human at OnBeing, and The hunt for alien life is only just beginning at NewScientist.

Read First Person: Jill Tarter (American Scientist), Dr. Jill Tarter (Asteroid Day), and Jill Tarter, Feminist Cosmic Icon (The Atlantic).

Visit her Wikipedia page, LinkedIn profile, TED page, PeoplePill profile, her SETI archived profile, and her current SETI page. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.