Sunday, June 25, 2006

". . . Engineering Physicist Tarter . . . Has Been ET-Hunting For More Than 25 Years . . ."

UFOs brought down to earth

Sorry Kaikoura, your UFOs haven't convinced Dr Jill Tarter. Nor, in fact, have any other alien sightings. Ever.


Jill Tarter (Sml)     Astronomer and engineering physicist Tarter, co-founder of the California-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, has been ET-hunting for more than 25 years, and is credited with moving the search from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream.

Tarter, due in Dunedin this week as a keynote speaker at the New Zealand International Science Festival, was named by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th centur. Jodie Foster's character in the movie Contact is said to be largely based on Tarter.

As a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Tarter regularly studies so-called UFO sightings, and says she's not yet seen credible evidence of alien life.

Kaikoura's "balls of light" sighted in 1978 created worldwide attention - but were later attributed to Japanese squid boats.

Tarter will tell New Zealand audiences about her institute's new and future use of sensitive radio and optical telescopes to scan the universe for ET transmissions.

So how do we know our technology is going to be on the same wavelength?

"A very good question. But if the appropriate technology is something we haven't yet invented we can't exactly use it."

The best we have are radio waves which can travel across the galaxy without being absorbed by the dust between the stars. Any communication, of course, will be a one-way street - given that any message takes 100,000 years to cross the galaxy.

"It's probably not going to be a snappy conversation," she agrees.

Any information encoded in a signal will be "probably repetitive" and thought out by civilisations who have made contact among themselves long before we came into the picture.

Tarter has no notion about what ETs might look like, other than that they won't be microscopic. "Metres are a good scale -you have to be able to build the equipment and transmit. But beyond that, all bets are off. I don't know whether we're talking about big blue women or little green men or purple octopuses. Anything is possible."

The common depiction of aliens as green and antennaed probably "goes back into the old part of the brain which feared snakes and reptiles", she says.

During our conversation, Tarter's cellphone cuts out three times. Technology may have to improve significantly to get across the galaxy if it can't get across the world.

"Maybe cellphones aren't going to be what we need, that's for sure," she says.

More . . .

See Also: ". . . SETI is Starting to Look a Bit of a Joke. That Much is Clear. . . ."


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