Jill Tarter speaks about search for extraterrestrial life at Berkeley Forum event

Brian Bi/Staff

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UC Berkeley alumna and world-renowned astronomer Jill Tarter spoke about the ongoing search for intelligent extraterrestrial life and the importance of a cosmic perspective at a Berkeley Forum event on Monday.

Speaking at one of the two concurrent events that kicked off the Berkeley Forum’s speaker schedule for the semester, Tarter, a co-founder and former director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, discussed recent developments in scientific technology that advance SETI’s research, such as new types of telescopes. Tarter also spoke about the “technosignatures” — evidence of extraterrestrial technology — that scientists look for, as well as how these technologies have changed since the 1960s when researchers began searching for extraterrestrial life.

Tarter described how SETI researchers “were going gung-ho for engineered signals,” such as unexplained electromagnetic radiation, as evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Instead of looking for significant technological developments, researchers are looking for features that “might be subtly different,” or what Tarter described as features “engineered to be natural.”

Some examples of what scientists at SETI or other research institutions might look for include an “unexpected albedo or ‘glint’ ” on a planet or finding a planet with the “wrong” surface temperature given its distance from a star. According to Tarter, these examples could be engineered by a civilization with advanced technology.

During the moderated and open question and answer parts of the presentation, Tarter answered questions about the necessity for scientific rigor, as well as the steps SETI will take if it detects signs of extraterrestrial life.

“Scientific rigor is an absolute necessity,” Tarter said. “We went to great lengths to distinguish ourselves, to distance ourselves from all of the UFOs and all the nonsense that’s out there.”

She said if SETI discovers signs of extraterrestrial life, the first steps would be to independently confirm the finding and then to share the information with the world, as it would be “the property of all humankind.”

Even if SETI were to discover a civilization so far away that immediate contact was impossible, Tarter hopes the finding might help people to view themselves as “earthlings” rather than as part of small groups, such as Americans. It would also, she added, prove that another technologically advanced society survived long enough for their history to overlap with our own.

“We (would) still learn that it’s possible for us to have a long future,” Tarter said. “Someone else made it through … and so can we.”

At the end of her presentation, Tarter discussed how she was able to remain optimistic about SETI’s research, despite the fact that scientists have yet to discover extraterrestrial life. Although she described herself as a natural optimist, she also credits her perseverance.

“It helps to be born optimistic,” Tarter said. “It helps to be stubborn as hell. It helps to be the only female student in a class of 300 engineering students — that toughens you up. You get up and you say, ‘I’m going to get up and figure out a way to do the search better today.’ ”

Audience members, including both undergraduate and graduate students, described Tarter’s talk as both “informative” and “inspiring.”

“I thought it was very interesting,” said Adam Jaffe, a first-year statistics doctoral candidate. “It was very technical at the beginning … but I think that Dr. Tarter brought up a lot of questions that don’t rely on there being an answer.”

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.