Tag Archives: Jill Tarter

The Probabilistic Universe: A Clip

The Probabilistic Universe

Here’s a clip I’ve been working on. As the title of this post suggests, it’s about how chance and the unexpected can play a major role in what we find ourselves doing, the discoveries we make, and the passions that fill us.

I’ve always thought of this clip as kind of the equivalent of a sidebar in a magazine article. Will it make it into the finished film? Don’t know. Some pertinent information is contained in it, but the whole thing? Maybe I’ll flip a coin to decide.

Another coin decision: When Tarter says “We … we? Jocelyn Bell and her thesis advisor….” Cut the “We… we”? Right now, I like it.

I’d really like to know what you think of this clip, since it’s quite different than the other clips up there. And please feel free to like it, share it, comment on it, etc.  You know I always love hearing from you.

You can help finish A Life’s Work. Yes, you! Donating to the film is easy and all amounts ($5-50,000) are welcome and appreciated.  More than $1,600 has been given to the film so far, and that without the big hyped up push of crowdfunding.

In addition to monetary help, there are many ways you can support A Life’s Work. Why not consider being a part of  the film’s growing community?

Conversations with Friends, Part 2

Not too long ago I was speaking with my friend S. about something other than film and art. He said, “In my experience, whenever you try to force something, it doesn’t work.”

Advice like this no one wants to hear, myself included. I believe I can will things to happen. It’s magical thinking. It’s how I deal with the uncertainty of my life at various times.

But it’s also true of film and art. Consider….

I have written before about one of my favorite lines in A Life’s Work, when Robert Darden talks about a setback the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project encountered. It’s in the following clip, the line is, “Okay. I need more faith.”

Not long ago I had been thinking about Jill Tarter’s response to my question about whether faith plays a part in her life. She said, “Faith in terms of an organized religion, no, it’s not part of my life.” I had also been thinking how I could juxtapose these two responses. I was twisting and turning the footage, trying to ram square pegs into round holes, and it wasn’t working. The problem is context — they are responding to different questions, Darden’s response is to a very specific incident and Tarter’s response is to a poorly formulated question from the interviewer (me). Sometimes you can make such disparate things work, sometimes you can’t. And when you can’t, you can’t, no matter how much you force it. So, I’ve moved on. Darden’s response has a very definite place in the film, Tarter’s, we’ll see, but I think not.

Life lesson learned? Probably not. I’m sure I’ll keep trying to force things. But maybe yielding this time will result in keeping a confusing scene out of the film, and that’s no small thing.

Related: Editing a Setback Sequence – Process

Documentary Dilemmas: The Neverending Stories

Do Scientists Pray? Albert Einstein Responds. So does Jill Tarter, in a Way

There’s a nifty website called Letters of Note. Two letters of note you’ll find there are an exchange between a sixth grader named Phyllis and Albert Einstein. Here’s the exchange, which  LoN took from the book Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children.
Albert Einstein

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours,



January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

I asked Jill Tarter a similar question:  was faith a part of her life? I found it a difficult question to ask her, and I hemmed and hawed my way through it. Thankfully, Tarter indulged me and answered with her typical eloquence.

Jill Tarter looks up at the sky

Faith in terms of an organized religion, no, it’s not part of my life. Marvel, looking at this universe that we have and then being blown away by how spectacular it is and enjoying the prospect of figuring out how it works, that’s a big part of my life. Here we are, literally stardust. We are the remnants of long dead stars. The iron in your hemoglobin was inside a massive star billions of years ago. But somehow, here we are, stardust, able to puzzle out a lot of the story of how we got here. That’s amazing!  Right? How could you not be turned on by that, and it’s really empowering and exciting. And I don’t find any need for some formalized religion.

I asked this question as I was approaching my half-century mark. But I was very pleased to read that essentially the same question was posed to the most famous scientist of the 20th Century by a sixth grader (age 11 or so). After all, A Life’s Work is essentially told from the point of view of a pre-adolescent, that wondering self many of us left behind when other matters took precedence in our lives.

Science and faith —  Reconcilable? What do you think?


Listen Up! A Clip featuring the SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter

Last week’s post, Please Forget Me, inspired a comment from friend and A Life’s Work subject Robert Darden:

I teach my Journalism students that they need to be invisible when they do interviews. I don’t want them to speak much and I sure don’t want the interviewee to know their political or religious views. In fact, I don’t know what any of the good reporters I’ve interviewed through the years think about such things … including the ones I see regularly. Their job is to get out of the way of the interview, to let the interviewee speak.

This reminded me of a comment left on How to Conduct an Interview, Part 2: Asking the Questions by friend and one of A Life’s Work’s cinematographers, Andy Bowley:

i think rule #1, to listen is supremely important. if you are listening — really listening and thinking over what the person is saying to you, they can really sense it. and if you’re doing it right, you should be listening and thinking. i mean you’ve got a lot to think about: you should be cutting their sound bites in your head, evaluating their ideas/stories for clarity, and maybe most importantly, letting your natural curiosity push you towards the next question. it’s nice to tell your interview subject that you’re just having a conversation — but if you ask questions that satisfy your curiosity or that clarify something — guess what? you really are having a conversation!

best of all, when you work this way your natural listening responses (nodding, smiling, scribbling, eyebrows whatever) tell that person that you are with them. no fake nodding necessary . . .

This in turn reminded me of an exchange I had with Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute. Why, I asked, is the Institute only listening for signals, and not sending them? What if everyone is just sitting around listening? (This is a hot topic in the SETI community.) She responds in this outtake.

What do you think? Should we be transmitting messages as well? And what should that message say? Write your thoughts in the comment box. I love hearing from you.

Bitter? Who Me?

I think often of something Jill Tarter, ex-Director, Center for SETI  Research, said when I asked her about working on a project she might not see “completed” in her lifetime:

I’m not going to be bitter and disappointed in my old age. I’m going to celebrate the fact that I was lucky enough to be part of getting something started that has the potential of having a profound impact….

Tomorrow, the SETI Institute may fold up its tent and go away because we can’t find the funding to keep it going, but it’s also enormously satisfying and there’s something about the opportunity, the privilege to work on a scientific question that everyone can relate to. That’s it. You can’t say anything else other than it is a privilege to be able to spend a career doing that.

Even though I have the memory her saying this to me directly, and have her saying this captured for posterity, it’s still easy slip into the role of the bitter aging artist. The work can be slow and tedious and it seems never to go right. And will it ever be done? And why aren’t people returning phone calls? And why has the computer decide not to open the damned file? And why does everyone  on Facebook have such a fabulous, successful yummy life? And what’s the point of making a movie anyway when people are just going to watch 58 seconds of it on their iPhones and then stop to text friends and check email and go on Facebook and read The Onion headlines and never return to your film again? Why ef’ing bother? Nobody cares. What’s the point?

Yes, it’s easy go down this road.

Which is why on the days I have to work on MY work, I drink my coffee out of one of three mugs. These mugs have magical powers; they can (sometimes) keep the bitterness at bay.

There’s this one, purchased during my first artist residency (Centrum Creative Arts and Education in Port Towsend, WA). I walked to the nearby Port Townsend Marine  Science Center and bought this mug because of the curious octopus.  I left a favorite red mug I had brought there and this came back home with me.

Port Townsend Marine Science Center mug

There’s this one, which was a gift from an estranged friend. I’ve always loved the paper cups with this design. But more than that, the words resonate: “We are happy to serve you.” It is important for me to remember that I am serving the film and whatever else I happen to be making, that those things are bigger than me.

We are happy to serve you  

And then there’s this one, purchased when I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. I save this one for days when I am way on the low and bitter side of the spectrum. It bolsters my ego a little to remember that some folks thought highly enough of my work to let me in their club. But also this mug reminds me of one specific moment.

MacDowell Colony mug

I was in my rustic studio editing. I had set up my work area so that when I sat at the computer I looked at a wall with my notes on it and positioned a moveable wall to block any chance of gazing out of the window while I was at my desk. One could gaze out those windows for hours if you weren’t careful.

I took a break and made a cup of coffee. My guitar sat in an armchair, stories and a dictionary consumed another desk, a book of Flannery O’Connor letters rested on the nightstand. I looked out the window and down the tree-lined dirt road. It started snowing and suddenly I felt blessed. Blessed to be where I was at that moment (MacDowell makes it easy to feel this way), but also blessed to be able to do what I do. What a privilege to be given time and space, and not just at residencies, but in my life, to do these things. To read, to play music, to write, to work on a film with amazing people about amazing people. I was profoundly happy that moment and I said out loud to myself, “Remember this. Remember this. Take this with you to the grave.”

It seems there’s a big difference  between someone, even someone you greatly admire, explaining to you why you’re privileged and apprehending it first hand. And I can’t always summon that feeling, but I can remember that I had it, that I understood with all of my being what a privilege it is to be able to spend a life doing this. Sometimes all I need is a mug, sometimes  that’s enough.

Do you have a mug, pen, notebook, article of clothing, etc. that has special powers? I’d love to hear about it, or see it. Leave a comment or send a photo. Really, I mean it!

Science Literacy, Carl Sagan, Jill Tarter

Did you read the Op Ed in last week’s New York Times about how our society has become “ambivalent, even skeptical, about the fruits of science”? (Read Welcome to the Age of Denial by Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester.) It’s a scary read, but one worth reading and getting riled up about.

I’d like to address a couple of sentences in the article.

“During my undergraduate studies I was shocked at the low opinion some of my professors had of the astronomer Carl Sagan. For me his efforts to popularize science were an inspiration, but for them such “outreach” was a diversion. That view makes no sense today… The enthusiasm and generous spirit that Mr. Sagan used to advocate for science now must inspire all of us.”

I shared the article with a scientist friend and we had an interesting exchange about it on Facebook. Here it is.


Me: It’s funny, I had an astronomy class in 1983 or 84, and I remember asking my professor about Sagan and he was dismissive, too. Like it was a bad thing to be a popularizer!

Scientist Friend: Well it was because if you were popularizing you probably weren’t doing research yourself or publishing in scientific journals.

Me:  I suppose. But it seems like tunnel vision to dismiss him and his popularizing. But I guess this is the case in many fields, not just science.

SF: Yeah, I guess it’s analogous to making a Hollywood film or having a hit on the pop charts.

Me: That’s exactly what I was thinking. Suddenly, you’re not doing the “important” work, you’ve sold out, and you’ve lost the respect of your peers.

SF: Although now he’s seen as an inspiration. And I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is everybody’s hero.

Me: He is. One of the most vivid memories I have of interviewing Jill Tarter was when I asked her about Sagan. (They were colleagues.) She said, “Carl was SPEC-TACULAR!” I think NDT has filled that void a little bit. His passion really comes through.

This article also inspired an exchange between me and another friend, DL, who posted the link on his Facebook page.2+2=5

DL: “we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.” from the above link. Why? WHY? and as David Licata said, what to do about it? This is really eating at me.

Me: Somewhere in the last 50 years or so, some people started confusing science with faith. “Believe” in evolution? I fear mathematics is next. “2+2=4 for you, but I choose to believe 2+2=5, so there.” From there, it’s straight down the crapper.

DL: Yeah, if math goes it all goes. I think part of the problem is misunderstanding coverage in the press about the latest study and the trending hypothesis. These are confused with scientific “facts” and it creates the illusion that science is constantly being overturned, so in the long run nothing science tells us can really be trusted.

Me: I think you nailed it. And no one seems to be educating people about how science “works,” about the scientific method. Welcome to the Middle Ages!

Now if I may, I’d like to end this post on a more positive note and return to when I spoke to Jill Tarter about Carl Sagan.

I first met Carl at a really really special meeting one afternoon at the Lawrence Berkeley labs when Luis Alvarez and his son Walter talked about their results of finding a fine layer of iridium right at the boundary layer between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary geological periods where the dinosaur extinction happened. And their thesis that what had killed off the dinosaurs was an impact from a comet or an asteroid which has a richer, enrichment in iridium relative to terrestrial values. And that this had produced an cataclysmic explosion and a dark ages, a winter that had killed off the dinosaurs. And so that was the first time I ever met Carl, at that meeting, and it was the start of a wonderful scientific adventure story…

Carl Sagan was actually a member of the board of trustees of the SETI Institute at the time of his death and we talked to him about what it was like to do SETI. He was in a number of workshops with us on this question because if anybody was thinking about the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence Carl was always invited and we were, too. So it was a great opportunity to talk. And so he knew about the technologies we used. He knew about the look and feel. What it would be like. The kinds of signals that we were capable of detecting. And all of that went into the background for Contact. Which is why the science is so good in that novel.


And as we all know, Sagan based the Ellie Arroway character in Contact (Jodie Foster in the movie) loosely on Tarter.

What do you think? Is the world going to hell in a science-illiterate handbasket?


Children’s Wonder

Last week I had a most pleasant earworm, the Hollies He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I’ve written about this song before, and the important thing for the sake of this post is that when I was eight years old, I was obsessed with this song and played the 45 over and over on my little plastic record player. I still revere the Hollies and that song, though to be honest, He Ain’t Heavy is the kind of schmaltzy song (all those strings) that would make me cringe as an adult.

So, with that song playing in the background of my head, I started thinking about an email exchange I had with playwright and friend of A Life’s Work, John Yearley about a film that floored him, Ashes & Diamonds. The film is great, make no mistake, but I wasn’t as moved as John was. It made me think of a John Landis quote, “Everything about a movie … is who you are and where you are when you saw it.”

Who was I when I was obsessed with that Hollies song? I remember the thing that struck me about it was “my broth-er-errrr.” Lyrics rarely initially lured, melody and rhythm grabbed me first, then the lyrics (this is still the case). But I remember feeling this deep deep love for my older brother while listening to that song, and though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I believe I had an epiphany centered around the idea of “brother.”

Soon after connecting these two dots, I came across this interview with Jill Tarter.

Here’s the text:

Jill Tarter with her father.

As a child, astronomer Jill Tarter would walk along the beaches of western Florida with her father and look up at the stars.

“I assumed, at that time, that along some beach on some planet, there would be a small creature walking with its dad and they would see our sun in their sky, and they might wonder whether anyone was there,” she tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “But I never thought about it professionally until graduate school.”

I’m probably extrapolating more than I should, but what I find really fascinating about this is that in both cases, the epiphanies involve a realization that there is something beyond one’s self. But with Tarter’s it’s a bit more than that. She was wondering about a doppleganger. On another planet. Orbiting another sun. Wondering about the existence of her!

As mindblowing as this is I don’t think it’s uncommon. I think many children think such things. But not many keep that wonder burning into adulthood.

I’m fascinated by the moments of wonder we experience, big and small, as children and as adults, and how those moments can lead to life decisions. Or a life’s work.

Would you care to share yours? I’d love to hear about it.