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Scientist probes outer space for aliens

Jill Tarter has helped move the search for extraterrestrials from the fringes of science to the mainstream.

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A trained physicist long fascinated by the universe, Jill Tarter built a career around the search for extraterrestrial life.
Science and Technology
Technology (general)

(CNN) -- For more than a quarter century, researcher Jill Tarter has sought to solve a mystery that has long intrigued scientists and science-fiction buffs: Are we alone in the universe?

"This is the oldest unanswered question, which is why I love working on it," Tarter said. "It's a fundamental question that humanity would like to answer, and we live in the first age where we can try and do an experiment and get that answer."

In the movie "Contact," in which she serves as the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character, Tarter is portrayed as a stubborn crusader with a lifelong passion for space. The characterization is apt, Tarter said.

"It might have been the Saturday morning 'Flash Gordon' cartoon shows or something that I watched," Tarter said, explaining her early interest in the universe. "I spent a lot of time walking ... with my dad, looking at the sky at night. It just seemed quite reasonable that those stars could be someone else's suns."

Born in upstate New York, Jill Tarter grew up as a self-described tomboy. After studying engineering physics at Cornell University, she focused on astrophysics while pursuing her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. There, she found the inspiration for her life's work -- an engineering study called the Cyclops report.

The report, which advanced the idea of using radio telescopes to detect extraterrestrials, proposed that if there are intelligent civilizations somewhere in space, they might be transmitting a radio beacon to the cosmos. If people on Earth tune in, the report noted, they might find evidence of alien broadcasting.

Despite colleagues' warnings that she would fall into scientific obscurity, Tarter set out to build a career tuning in to potential extraterrestrial signals.

Over time, Tarter found a lot of company on Earth, if not from space. In 1984, she co-founded the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in California, known as SETI. As the lead researcher at the privately funded institute, she's seen the field move from the fringes of science toward the mainstream.

In 1989, the professional group Women in Aerospace awarded Tarter the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to the branch of biology concerned with the search for life outside the Earth. NASA has also recognized Tarter's achievements, awarding the astrophysicist two public service medals.

In 2002, the American Association for the Advancement of Science -- the world's largest scientific society -- elected Tarter a fellow, one of only a handful from the astronomy field picked that year.

While they have gained acceptance from her peers and the public, Tarter and her team know they still face a long, difficult challenge. There are about 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, Tarter said, and so far, all searchers for extraterrestrial intelligence have examined only about 10,000 stars.

For now, Tarter says there is no other question she would rather spend her career trying to answer than whether life exists beyond the Earth.

"For me, the important thing about detecting another intelligent species somewhere else in the universe is that it holds up a mirror to the Earth," she said. "And it says, 'OK, humans. You're all humans.' And the differences between us and ... that life form are vast, and they should trivialize the differences among humans that we find so hard to live with these days."

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