"Contact", Carl Sagan's 1985 novel about man's contact with extraterrestrial life and where it takes us, was, like all good stories, modeled around real characters.

The book was okay but the movie "Contact" had Jodie Foster, who I would contend had the most convincing portrayal of a scientist in film ever, and that made it special.  Where did she get her inspiration?  The same place Carl Sagan did; from Jill Tarter, the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute.

After 35 years of being in the front lines looking for extraterrestrial life, Tarter has announced she is stepping down so she can 'look for intelligent funding' instead.  And that's a terrific role for her.  SETI has its ups and downs and those revolve around money; relying on government funding is, I have said before, silly.  The Allen Telescope Array was put into hibernation at this time last year, and I said then that the number one job of SETI CEO Tom Pierson (and every other non-profit CEO) is raising money.  That's it. Not science, not the betterment of mankind.  Raise money so that everything else can happen.

Well, no one is better suited to that than Tarter, even if she hates it.  If anyone looks like they are about to say no to her request for money, she need only bring up an anecdote about how many books Carl Sagan sold and what she taught Jodie Foster in order to be convincing and people will pretty much have to nod their heads and agree she deserves a check. 

They've been getting it done since Democrats killed funding for SETI in 1993 and there are clearly bigger ways to search for life now - but they won't have the chance without funding and Tarter has the energy at a youthful 68 to put this project on her back and carry it.

“SETI research experiments are funded by private donations, limiting how quickly we can search these newly discovered planets for intelligent life,” said Tarter. “The best reason to support SETI research is because it is an investment in our own future. The scientist Phil Morrison said that ‘SETI is the archeology of the future.’ Think about it. If we detect a signal, we could learn about THEIR past (because of the time their signal took to reach us) and the possibility of OUR future. Successful detection means that, on average, technologies last for a long time. That's the only way another technological civilization can overlap with us in time and space. Understanding that it is possible to find solutions to our terrestrial problems and to become a very old civilization, because someone else has managed to do just that, is hugely important! Knowing that there can be a future may motivate us to achieve it.”

SETI is hosting its conference, SETIcon II, June 22-24th in Santa Clara, California, to celebrate Tarter and also show people the latest developments.  Along with Tarter will be a number of astronomers involved in the search for habitable planets, and even  “Drake Equation” author and astronomer Frank Drake.

Want to attend? http://seticon.com/