2019 Guardian Award

Jill Tarter Named 2019 Lifeboat Foundation Guardian Award Winner

The 2019 Lifeboat Foundation Guardian Award has been given to Jill Tarter in recognition of her 40 years spent in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Jill’s goal is to learn if there are any alien intelligences outside of our “fragile island of life” [1]. There are real dangers that could stop civilizations from moving forward and the human race is not guaranteed to survive. As Jill says, “If technologies don’t last and persist, we will not succeed.” [1]
Jill’s efforts have helped us determine how many known civilizations have survived advanced technology (none). Also, if any advanced civilizations capable of living outside their home planet were discovered then we might learn what steps we need to take to avoid our extinction. It would be wonderful to “find ways to survive our increasingly uncertain technological adolescence!” [1]
The datapoint of our dead universe was one of the key reasons that the Lifeboat Foundation was founded. A universe where no civilizations have survived advanced technologies so they could colonize the universe is a universe where we have to be concerned that a Great Filter that causes our extinction awaits us.
This subject is so important that Ray Kurzweil used 25 pages of his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology to discuss this topic. (Pages 342–367 in the paperback, and pages 254–271 in the hardcover.) While Ray expects the SETI project to find nothing (because an advanced civilization would leave a big footprint that we would already have noticed), he says that the SETI project should have a high priority “because the negative finding is no less important than a positive result.”
Jill is the former director of the Center for SETI Research, holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute. She earned her Bachelor of Engineering Physics degree as an undergraduate at Cornell University and as the only woman in the engineering program. Her professional interest in astronomy emerged as she pursued her Master’s degree and her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. It was in her Ph.D. thesis where she coined the term “brown dwarf” while researching small-mass objects that fail to stably fuse hydrogen.
Jill’s astronomical work is illustrated in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. In the film version of Contact, the protagonist Ellie Arroway is played by Jodie Foster. Jill conversed with the actress for months before and during filming, and Arroway was “largely based” on her work.
Jill received two public service medals from NASA and Time Magazine named her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004. Asteroid 74824 Tarter was also named after her.
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Footnote 1: All three quotes are from Jill Tarter: Why the search for alien intelligence matters.