Desktop Diaries: Jill Tarter

"Someone described my office as an eight-year-old's daydream," says astronomer Jill Tarter, who has been collecting E.T.-themed office ornaments for 30 years. Tarter was the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute's first employee, and the inspiration for the character in Carl Sagan's Contact.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Flora Lichtman is here with us. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Thank you.

FLATOW: You heard us talking about Jill Tarter.

LICHTMAN: The perfect introduction, Ira. Thank you for that. She is inspirational and she's the subject of this week's video.

FLATOW: And it's our video pick. You went out to see her. Would it be a Desktop Diary?

LICHTMAN: It is a Desktop Diary. It's more like Jill Tarter unpacking her desktop diary.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: She had moved just a few days before and literally hadn't had time in her office to unpack. So I got to see everything. You know, all that stuff that gets hidden in drawers...

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...was being unpacked. So it's a very good, an intimate view of Jill Tarter's desk ornaments. Which she's been collecting, you know, for 30 years. She was one of the early - she's a pioneer of SETI and the first SETI employee.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: That's the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

FLATOW: Right. And in the video she has one desktop tchotchke on the desk that really tells the story of one of her early mentors told her and gave it to her, right?

LICHTMAN: Yes. Barney Oliver gave it to her and it's a little guy, gold guy, pushing an enormous boulder. And the story is he put it down on the desk and said if you're going to do this, you're going to be pushing a lot of boulders up hills.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And that's just the price of doing something new.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: She said.

FLATOW: Yeah. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, here with Flora Lichtman talking about her Desktop Diary. It's Jill Tarter unpacking and she has lots of stuff she's unpacking on her desktop.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. One of my favorite things - did you notice this in the video? - is that there is a bottle of wine and on the label it says: To be opened only upon detection of extraterrestrial signal. And there are even glasses. Like they're ready for that moment.

FLATOW: Right. She's packing the - yes. I was wondering. These are perfect. They look like they're champagne flutes, right?

LICHTMAN: Right. Exactly.

FLATOW: And she's putting them four of them nicely packed and she packs them away.

LICHTMAN: They're ready. It's funny. You know, I never really thought of that. If you actually get the signal, what's that moment going to be like? But they have a plan.

FLATOW: They do.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: They have a plan. And, you know, from speaking with her from in the past when she's been on the program and from watching her, and from seeing the tchotchkes and like the Sisyphus pushing the - this is what it's going to be - she looks like she is one tough person. Right?

LICHTMAN: I - yes.

FLATOW: She has grown layers of skin over the years.

LICHTMAN: Yes. In fact, we talked about this a little bit, because she was the only woman in her engineering class of 300 at Cornell. And she gave us a little bit of the back story on what it was like to go into this field.

JILL TARTER: So in high school I got all this guidance like why do you want to take calculus? You're just going to get married and have babies. Or what do you mean you want to take a physics course? You're just going to be a housewife. So, yes, there was for me this just bull your way ahead. Just plow ahead and do it because you think it's right and forget about what they think.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: And it comes through. I mean, you know, sort of staying with SETI for all these years and keeping it alive.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And transitioning into doing more fundraising recently.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: That was sort of the big news.

FLATOW: Yeah. It sounded like she got some money.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. We just heard that.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. The search goes on.

FLATOW: But she's not involved in the active search every day now?

LICHTMAN: Well, she does read the emails every day. So every day SETI sends out to its employees this list of numbers and they're the observations from the night before. And they go through this series and if it gets to, like, stage five they all get a text message.

FLATOW: Stage five.

LICHTMAN: But, you know, I asked Jill Tarter - I was curious because, you know, she's looking for something that may never be found or may not be found in her lifetime or may not even exist and I was wondering what it's like to do a job like that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: And she had an interesting answer. She was like, well, you know, I can still do something profound even if I never get to answer that question. Because the way that she sees the search for SETI, if the world can get involved, maybe these differences among people can be trivialized. Maybe people can see themselves as part of a global community. And if that can be achieved, or a step towards that can be achieved, you know, she said that she thought that was an important as finding a signal.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's reminiscent of a little Saganism, "The Pale Blue Dot."

LICHTMAN: Right.

FLATOW: If you go away and see us all as one little dot in the sky.

LICHTMAN: Right.

FLATOW: And if we're all, you know, in this together searching. So she's moving - she moved into her new office yet, do you know? With her schedule?

LICHTMAN: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah?

LICHTMAN: Moved in. You should check out the many, many trinkets. I mean this might've been the best office I've been in. She, in fact, said that someone described it as an eight-year-old's daydream. So that gives you a sense.

FLATOW: Awesome. It's true. She's there packing her stuff up and putting stuff away and you see how many awards she has. She was woman - what was she? Person of the Year at Time?

LICHTMAN: Time.

FLATOW: Time.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. That was the amazing thing. We had just talked about this sort of people not encouraging her to go into science and math but she's, like, meanwhile unpacking loads and loads of awards and plaques and, you know, really showed those people...

FLATOW: A lifetime well spent.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I would...

FLATOW: Yeah. Wow.

LICHTMAN: And more to come.

FLATOW: More to come. It's up there on our website. It's our Video Pick of the Week of Jill Tarter, who was - did she start SETI? I think she's probably...

LICHTMAN: I think she was the first employee.

FLATOW: First employee.

LICHTMAN: But didn't start it. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah, first employee at SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. You see her packing her stuff and get to watch Flora, who did a wonderful, wonderful editing on this.

LICHTMAN: Well, thank you.

FLATOW: It's beautiful. It's a beautiful piece up there on our website. It's ScienceFriday.com. You can also take it along with you, you know, on our - on your iPad watch it or take it home as an app and watch it any way you want to. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today.

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