In April 2017, Bill Diamond, President and CEO of the SETI Institute, told me that there was a biography of Jill Tarter coming out in July. I was thrilled when I later heard that it was written by Sarah Scoles, a contributor to Wired Science. Last year when I was trying to get people interested in the crowdfunding campaign, Sarah and I volleyed some emails, and I was thrilled when she remembered me and agreed to do this mini interview. So, here’s Five Questions For… science writer Sarah Scoles, author of the just published biography, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
My first introduction to Jill Tarter came in fictional form, when I watched the movie Contact on a Friday night with my family. In Contact, a character named Ellie Arroway–partly inspired by Jill–champions the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and (unlike the SETI story in real life!) does find aliens. I had been interested in astronomy for years before that, since I was very young, but I didn’t know that anyone searched for extraterrestrial life in a really serious way. It was a huge revelation to realize that, and then, later, to realize there was this actual person who did the same thing. I thought the questions that the fictional character and the real Jill wanted to answer–How did we get here? Who else is out there?–were so compelling, and they led me into the world of radio astronomy. I ended up writing about that field, rather than being a researcher in it, and so when I decided I wanted to write a book, I thought about what had first inspired me to enter this particular kind of astronomy–SETI and Jill–and thought maybe others would be similarly interested and inspired.
What about her surprised you the most?
I think I was most surprised by how interested Jill is in this planet, and life here on Earth. I guess in some slightly subconscious way, I thought she must spend all her mental energy thinking about things beyond Earth. But she is very curious about and invested in understanding things close to home. One summer, I went with Jill and some of the SETI Institute’s interns to far northern California, where the Institute runs an observatory called the Allen Telescope Array. While there, we all trekked up to Lassen Volcanic National Park, where some Institute scientists study the extreme life that lives at high altitudes, in snow, and in the hydrothermal pools flanking the old volcano. Jill not only stopped at every single interpretive sign and read the whole thing but also, at one point, stopped to do a calculation of how hot a given lava rock must have been if it took X number of months to cool off.
What’s the process of writing a book like this? How many interviews/how many hours, how much research, and related to this, how long did it take from concept to final draft to publication date?
From concept to publication date, the process took about three years, although there were only about six months when I was able to work primarily on the book. The rest of the time, I was also a full-time freelancer, writing magazine stories. To start the book, I left my job as an editor at Astronomy magazine and moved to California, where Jill lives, so that we could meet regularly without my having to buy 5,000 plane tickets. We met once or twice a month for about a year, and we would sit in her house or at the SETI Institute and do 2-3-hour interviews. Sometimes, we worked from a list she had of the “top 100 moments” in her life; sometimes, we would go through file cabinets of old scientific papers and conference proceedings; sometimes, we would check out the many photo albums she has going back decades. On my own, I read most of the SETI books out there, to know what other writers had already said; I read science journal articles about exoplanets and astrobiology and radio signal processing; I got archival newspaper subscriptions to see what people were saying about SETI throughout history; I used Google images to find pictures of the places she’d been that I hadn’t, and how they looked 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Then, I talked to others in the field who knew or had worked with her, to see how their perspectives matched up or didn’t. It was…a lot of work! But a fun challenge to try to recreate a scene in a place and for an event I didn’t myself witness.
You’re a professional science writer, the idea of “alternative facts” and “disbelief” in science must rankle you. Any thoughts on how we got here?
I think both “alternative facts” and “disbelief” in science have always been around. I don’t think they represent a new phenomenon. I think Galileo and Copernicus, both of whom caught the eye of the Inquisitioners because their data and ideas didn’t place Earth at the center of the universe, would agree with that. And then there are the snake oil salespeople, literal and proverbial, who’ve been literally and proverbially successful for more than a century. I think in recent decades, the discoveries of science have had more bearing on daily life than they may have in the past — not that they didn’t always have some or significant bearing — as technology dominates, climate changes, bacteria resist, etc. And so science is more in the public conversation and communal life, which means opposition is, too.
In my film, Jill talks about Sputnik inspiring Americans to go into scientific fields. When I was a kid, it was the space program. Do we need something similar to that (sending humans to Mars, for example) to inspire the next generation and get out of this Dark Ages world view we seem to have regressed to?
I think I have a slightly less pessimistic view on this! While there’s certainly darkness and “anti-science” sentiment out there, I think it’s fairly matched by others’ interest and enthusiasm. We live in an incredibly productive time, scientifically. Scientists produce more results, take more data, and affect our world arguably more than they ever have in the past. In a report called “Condition of STEM 2016,” (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) the ACT organization found that about half of high-school graduates who took the ACT are interested in STEM majors and careers. Granted, ACT-takers represent a biased sample; not all of those students will go into STEM careers; and schools don’t prepare all demographics equally for STEM fields. But I think The Youth do care about science and technology, and do want to contribute to those fields. That said, a mission to Mars would certainly light a fire, rocket pun intended, under a lot of students.
Want more? Check out Sarah’s interview about the book and Tarter in The Atlantic.
Sarah Scoles is a freelance science writer and a contributor at WIRED Science. (If you haven’t read A Rare Journey into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a Super-Bunker that Can Survive Anything, check it out. It will blow your mind.) She lives in Denver, Colorado, and formerly worked at Astronomy magazine and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in Green Bank, West Virginia, where the first SETI experiment took place. She enjoys running up mountains and reading short story collections.
Cover photo of the Allen Telescope Array by Sarah Scoles.