The Women of SETI

Jun. 26, 2003
by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

The work promised to be repetitive, undramatic, and as dull as decade-old floor wax. Perfect, in other words, for a woman.

That was the attitude of Edward Pickering, Director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1880, as he confronted the necessity of analyzing the swelling stack of glass plates being churned out by his research staff. At the end of the nineteenth century, astronomys increasing use of photography was causing a gush of new data. In particular, stellar spectra "fingerprints" of a stars temperature and composition were being made by the hundreds each clear night.

Pickering wanted to classify and organize nearly a quarter-million such spectra into a catalog. It was a thankless, tedious, and costly proposition; a dismaying challenge for the observatory director. His benefactor, the widow of an amateur astronomer, persuaded Pickering to offer this work to women, a radical idea at the time. But he took the suggestion, and the results were both gratifying and inexpensive. Women, Pickering wrote, were "capable of doing as much good routine work as astronomers who would receive larger salaries. Three or four times as many assistants can thus be employed."

During the next four decades, Pickerings underpaid computers (as many of the women were called) compiled the ground-breaking Henry Draper Catalog, which immediately became a bible for the new field of astrophysics. Several of the women made shattering discoveries. Annie J. Cannon devised the stellar classification system we use today and Henrietta S. Leavitt discovered a peculiar category of unstable stars known as Cepheid variables. For nearly a century, the Cepheids have been the yardsticks by which we measure the distances to the galaxies and gauge the age of the universe. (Leavitt was nominated for a Nobel Prize for this important work, but only posthumously!)

Today, women astronomers have their own computers (the silicon variety), and apply themselves to every facet of front-line investigation, from comets to cosmology. And that includes, of course, the hunt for intelligent life beyond Earth.

Just about everyone whos curious about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence knows of Jill Tarter, the SETI Institutes director of SETI research. Tarter has logged more telescope hours in the search for cosmic company than any other human on the planet, and was the inspiration for the protagonist of Carl Sagans novel "Contact." Shes in the forefront of development for the Allen Telescope Array, the first radio telescope designed from the pad up to be used 24 hours a day for SETI.

A somewhat smaller fraction of the astronomy literati are aware that Jill Tarter also heads the American consortium seeking to build the Square Kilometer Array a massive instrument that will ultimately claim title to being the "mother of all radio telescopes." The SKA will extend our scrutiny of the skies to distances ten times farther than currently possible.

Other women of SETI are less well known, but no less able. Every time the SETI Institutes Project Phoenix team travels to the Arecibo telescope, the entourage includes Jane Jordan, the software manager for the project. A soft-spoken redhead, Jordan coded the programs that collect and analyze the cosmic static funneled into the telescopes receivers. As much as anyone, she "built" the system we use for our reconnaissance of nearby star systems. Janes now busy putting together the New Search System the modern incarnation of the Phoenix data cruncher, and one that will ultimately be used on the Allen Telescope Array. Its a job she describes, with a smile, as "herding cats."

How do the women of SETI feel about working in a field that is still largely male-dominated? Jane Jordan looks on the bright side. "When I went to M.I.T. as an undergraduate studying math, the situation was far more extreme. There werent many women at all; maybe a dozen or so in each class. In most of my courses, I would look around the lecture hall and see that I was the only woman. But come to think of it, there were a lot more in my math classes maybe three!"

Jordan doesnt personally feel that the sort of gender discrimination that was routine even as recently as her college days is as much of an issue today. Indeed, the numbers seem to bear this out. A poll made by the American Astronomical Association in 1999 found the obvious, lopsided gender balance in academia: only 5% of astronomy full professors were women. But 25% of astronomy graduate students are female, and these young women are obviously in the pipeline to be tomorrows researchers. The landscape is changing.

For Jill Tarter, encouraging women researchers remains a high priority. She spends an impressive chunk of her time working on the SETI Institutes various education projects, betting that one salubrious outcome of these efforts will be to keep a higher fraction of young girls engaged with science.

It seems inevitable that as the 21st century progresses, research, like suffrage and schooling, will become thoroughly gender neutral. The women of SETI are in the forefront of an unstoppable tide. Indeed, Jill Tarter sees no bounds on women, either here or "out there." When questioned about the possibilities for life on other planets, she delights in railing against conventional views. "Little green men? Forget that," she laughs. "After all, they could be big blue women!"

Its a thought that would have caused Pickerings computers to smile.