Jill Tarter retired this past week after 30 years of doing what she did.
That name may not be as familiar to you as Neil Armstrong or John Glenn, but she is famous enough within a certain segment of the space community that a movie was made about her work.
Tarter was the inspiration for the main character in Carl Sagan’s classic book Contact, which was made into a movie by the same name that starred Jodie Foster. Of course, the topic of the book and movie, and the focus of Tarter’s career, was the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
SETI, as it is known for short, is one of those space-related topics that I think everyone is interested in, has some opinion about, but way too often is too afraid to discuss seriously for fear of not being taken seriously.
The subject of intelligent aliens is usually left for late night talk radio, and is usually clumped together with talk of JFK and 911 conspiracy theories or the latest UFO or Elvis sightings.
If you’re not familiar with the storyline of Contact, the basics are that Ellie Arroway, the Jill Tarter-based character, is using radio telescopes to listen for signals from deep space that are not naturally produced.
Assuming the laws of nature are universal in this universe, all intelligent life would understand math in the same manner, so an excellent way to announce your presence would be to broadcast a series of prime numbers at a certain frequency that would be relevant to our understanding of chemistry.
Prime numbers, as you may recall from elementary school, are special numbers that can only be divided by one and themselves. So 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 and so on are all prime numbers.
Because of their unique mathematical relationship, you would not expect any naturally occurring phenomenon to be able to generate a radio signal at a specific frequency that included prime numbers unless it originated from an intelligent form of life.
So, in the book and the movie Contact, such a signal is heard on Earth and drama ensues. I encourage you to read the book and watch the movie if you’ve never done so. It will definitely challenge you to think about what you believe, and why, about science, our place in the universe, and even the existence of God.
The fact that science and religion is intertwined in this story is inescapable. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that Carl Sagan was clearly a skeptic and agnostic, there were strong pro-religious themes in both the book and movie, including a very enticing development in the book, but not included in the movie, that offered proof of God’s existence buried within the value of Pi.
Contact, both book and movie, definitely challenged the way I think about the universe. The book definitely belongs on every self-respecting space cadet’s book shelf, and the movie remains within my personal list of Top Ten favorite flicks of all time, and not just because parts of the movie were filmed at the KSC press site and you can see the trailer where I worked in several scenes.
What I like most about Contact, and the work Jill Tarter and SETI are doing for real, is that in challenging my thoughts about such things, it only reinforced what I already personally believed in several ways.
First, I definitely believe there is some form of extraterrestrial life out there somewhere. It may be nothing more than bacteria, or perhaps there are giant dinosaurs on another world. (Here, size doesn’t matter.) And it may be as close as microbes on Mars, or small fish hidden within the ice-encrusted oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Second, I am hopeful there is intelligent life out there. If we humans are an accident of random mutations and evolution, and not the product of an intelligent designer, then, given the billions of worlds that must be circling the trillions of stars that out there, there has got to be a statistically high probability that some form of intelligent life has evolved somewhere else.
On the other hand, if there is an intelligent designer in the universe, as I believe, then what better proof could there be for God’s existence than to learn we here on Earth are the only form of intelligent life anywhere in the universe; that to be created in God’s image makes us all the more special among the stars.
We may or may not ever find scientifically verifiable proof that we are or are not alone in the universe. Or that God does or does not exist. It’s enough for me that I have faith both are true, and that my curiosity about what’s out there constantly drives me to learn more about my universe, and my relationship with God.
Add these questions about our existence to the reasons why I think it’s a good idea for us to have a space program that seeks out knowledge to help us better understand the answers to our most fundamental questions about life, both physical and spiritual.
Jill Tarter spent 30 years listening for signs of intelligent life out there. Let’s make sure we do the intelligent thing back here and continue the quest.