The search for extraterrestrial life is the ultimate hybrid of creativity and science, the quest to discover something we can’t even describe yet. Jill Tarter embodies that creativity in her work with the SETI Institute, and is the subject of a special video released today.

WeTransfer’s Creative Class is an online series highlighting creative people doing cool things in the world. This season, the series features SETI Institute astronomer Jill Tarter, the real-life inspiration for Carl Sagan’s Dr. Ellie Arroway in Contact.

Tarter chatted with Gizmodo about the role of creativity in the search for intelligent aliens, exclaiming, “You have to try to think creativity about how do you discover what you really can’t imagine!”

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Jill Tarter, real-life alien-hunting astronomer. Image courtesy of Jill Tarter

“I like to say we’re looking for photons, but maybe it’s zeta rays that the advanced technologies of the universe are using to communicate,” Tarter offered as an analogy. “I don’t know what a zeta ray is because we haven’t invented it yet. We don’t understand that physics yet. Maybe that’s in our future.”

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We haven’t found aliens yet, so we need to keep expanding the very way that we search. “How do you look at the universe in new ways that will allow you to find things you that you didn’t imagine?” Tarter said. “[Astronomer Martin Harwit] made this case for essentially venture investing in the astronomical sciences because every time you open up a new observation space, we found something we didn’t expect!”

What will we find if we listen in just the right way? Image credit: Warner Bros.

Astronomy is full of such examples. Tarter recounts the iconic discovery of pulsars that started in 1965-66, when a team of graduate students built a new type of radio telescope:

Jocelyn Bell and her colleagues spent the summer nailing up kilometers of wire and fence posts to make a low-frequency detector. They made it for a very scientific goal, but yet when Jocelyn was looking at the data, she found these little bits scruff. She was curious enough and systematic enough to follow up on them.

Suddenly, wow! There are radio beacons out there more precise than any clock we’ve built. There are entire stars, neutron stars, that are spinning around several times a second. Unbelievable! They found it because they had a new tool. They had a different way of looking at the universe.

This happens again and again and again. Every time we invent a new tool, discoveries follow. “I think being creative, building new ways to look at the universe, can lead to amazing results.” Tarter said. “You don’t do that if you think, ‘Well, I’m going to do today what I did yesterday.’”

Our conversation with Tarter was so interesting and so long that we couldn’t transcribe it all in just one night. Instead, check out her Creative Class special here:

Check back tomorrow as we continue our conversation with Tarter about how the SETI Institute searches for alien life, how that search might change as technology improves, and her life as one of the first women in the industry.

Top image: SETI astronomer Jill Tarter is the real-life inspiration for Contact’s Ellie Arroway. Credit: Warner Bros. Corrections: We mistranscribed science fiction zeta rays as more mundane beta rays, and went camping with tent pegs while building a radio telescope. Such is the woe of phone interviews! Apologies, Jill.


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.