Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Features and More

Aliens, asteroids and threats from outer space? All part of her job

It's in the movies. It's in the headlines. It's in our fears.

The end of the world.

In the rom-com Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which opens next week, Steve Carell seeks to find an old love before a 70-mile-wide asteroid slams into Earth.

In a recent New York Times column, Maureen Dowd talks about her own "cosmophobia."

Then there's the Miami "face eater." That has to be a sign of a Zombie Apocalypse, right?

"There are a lot more amazing and fascinating things happening out there than the ones we make up, such as the Mayan calendar and all that stuff," says Dr. Jill Tarter, an astronomer who views such cases with both amusement and concern. "It sells movies but there's no reality."

Tarter, 68, is calling from California's SETI Institute, where she holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Tarter has devoted her career to discovering if we truly are alone in the universe. In Contact, the 1997 movie based on Carl Sagan's novel, the lead character played by Jodie Foster, Ellie Arroway, was a nod to Tarter. "The character is Carl," Tarter says. "Ellie's experiences are mine."

Tarter is a real-life alien hunter who believes that movie aliens say more about us than they do about any threat. Contact, she says, would be a reason for hope, not fear.

"If we detect a signal, we learn that it's possible for us as a technological civilization to have a long future," she says. "Detection tells you that it's possible."

Forget Prometheus or Men in Black. The private, not-for-profit SETI Institute has discovered only a "handful of false positives" over the years that initially suggested E.T. was phoning home, or Earth, in this respect.

But what about those asteroids?

"It's a real threat — there's a rock out there some place with our name on it," Tarter says.

"But we actually now are on the verge of (having the technology) that if given advanced information, we could, in fact, do something."

But reality trumps any movie fears.

"The law of physics tell us that if we just change the velocity (of an asteroid) a tiny bit than you can avoid a collision with the Earth," Tarter says. "But political reality is that if an asteroid is going to ... hit Washington and you want to move it — you want it to miss Earth altogether — but now maybe that line takes it across London or Moscow or whatever."

Now, Tarter says, you have to deal with the scary political ramifications of asteroid defense. And, she says, there's another side effect to humans' response to a perceived space threat.

Tarter's SETI colleague, Dr. David Morrison, who answers questions at NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" website, has had to debunk Internet stories about fictional killer planets (Nib­iru) and December doomsdays.

"All (such stories do) is sell movie tickets and what could be bad about that?" Tarter asks. "The downside of this is that people who don't think enough for themselves get frightened and can take very harmful actions."

Tarter wishes we all would be more skeptical.

"It's quite remarkable what humans are willing to believe without any evidence or data as part of the picture."

Well, that makes us feel better.

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