Published Sunday, January 17, 1999, in the San Jose
VOICES OF OUR TIME: JILL TARTER
Imagining others in our galaxy
"From your perspective, what have been some of the
most important developments of this century, and how
will the world be different 100 years from now?"
At the SETI Institute, we are currently conducting
workshops whose formal purpose is to think about the
future. We look at our own possible futures, and by
analogy, the possible "presents" of advanced
technological civilizations (if they exist) elsewhere
in our Milky Way Galaxy.
We are trying very hard to imagine the unimaginable.
Our understanding of physics, and the physical
universe in which we find ourselves, is far from
At the beginning of this century, the cosmology of
the day put humans right in the center of the known
universe. Then came quantum mechanics, and also the
observational proof that, far from being central, we
occupy a small corner of a universe whose vastness
strains our imaginations; a universe that may be but
one among countless others.
We have yet to develop a quantum theory that unifies
gravity with the other fundamental forces of nature,
but we know this is needed in order to explain the
universe we observe, and to predict its future.
We wonder whether life, indeed life intelligent
enough to contemplate its own place in the universe,
is ubiquitous, and we wonder how we might find out.
As we project our own technologies forward into the
future to guess the ways that advanced technological
civilizations might manifest themselves (the better
to design experiments capable of detecting them), we
are almost certainly being too conservative. Arthur
Clarke reminds us that significantly advanced
technologies will be indistinguishable from magic!
It is not hard to predict that if other advanced
technological civilizations do exist in the Milky
Way, and if the coming century permits their
discovery, they will surprise us.
Jill Tarter, an astrophysicist, is director of
Project Phoenix at the Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View. She
lives in Berkeley.
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