What The Search For Extraterrestrial Life Can Teach Us About Creativity

For decades, astronomer Jill Tarter held the ultimate “creative” job: looking for aliens.

What The Search For Extraterrestrial Life Can Teach Us About Creativity
Photo: Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin


STEM careers are all the rage, but let’s be honest: Part of you probably still thinks that, for the most part, “science is just a list of old, dead white men and facts that need to be memorized.” But according to Jill Tarter—astronomer, former director of the Center for SETI Research, and inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the film Contact—”that couldn’t be farther from the truth.” Over the course of her four-decades-long scientific career, Tarter has had to be creative on two fronts at once. First, she had to forge her reputation within the male-dominated field of astronomy. Second, she did it by searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

“Science is incredibly creative,” Tarter says in an interview. “It’s an adventure, it’s a puzzle, it’s an unknown. If you’re willing, persuasive enough, and have a good enough idea, you can go seek funding to try and find that answer. It’s the best job in the world.” It also turns out to offer a lot of inspiration for stereotypically “creative” fields like design. Tarter shares some of her insights below.

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Your Tools Define Your Creative Process

Do you design in Adobe or Autodesk? Do you sketch on paper or an iPad? Do you do research over the Internet or in the field? Designers could debate about tools and processes until the heat death of the universe, but it’s not all idle hairsplitting. Good design often comes down to asking the right questions about what a problem is before you start thinking about solutions. Just like in science, the tools you use constrain the questions you think to ask—for better or worse.

“The number one constraint on [the search for extraterrestrial intelligence] is that we know what we know, and we don’t know what we don’t know—we have tools that are capable of certain things, and tools that we haven’t yet invented,” Tarter says. “We’ve been used to using our eyes for all these years. But what do the more traditional fields of astronomy plan to do? What kind of tools will they be building to study the universe? Is there any way that those tools could be repurposed or shared to look for something else?”

According to Tarter, people tasked with creative work often “have a bad problem with preconceptions.” And much of that difficulty can be traced to the built-in assumptions that come with using tools in a certain way. She cites Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an award-winning astrophysicist whose work led to the discovery of pulsars, as an inspiration. “She spent a summer nailing kilometers of wire onto fence posts in order to build a very large low-frequency array radio telescope,” Tarter says. The signal from this array was so strange—and so orderly—that Burnell and her collaborator Antony Hewish nicknamed it “LGM–1”, which stood for “little green men.”


Further observations ruled out an extraterrestrial origin for the periodic signal. But if Burnell hadn’t built her telescope out of fence posts and wire, the mystery of pulsars might still be unsolved—or never uncovered in the first place. “We need to build tools to open up different parameter spaces for searching, and we need to keep our eyes open and see what we can find,” Tarter says.

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Hitch A Ride On “Practical” Stuff

Getting buy-in for game-changing ideas can be difficult in any organization. Invention or innovation can look pointless or wasteful at first. I asked Tarter how on earth she convinced anyone that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence was worthwhile. “Well, there certainly was a time when I’d get those ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a field like this’ kinds of questions,” she recalls. (Rampant sexism: also not conducive to creativity.)

Tarter says that in the beginning, her more out-of-the-box inquiries rode alongside everyday research. She correctly predicted the existence of “brown dwarfs”—celestial objects bigger than Jupiter but smaller than a normal star—while investigating the long-standing missing mass problem in astronomy. “It took 25 years before anyone ever found the first brown dwarf,” Tarter says. “It’s taking a bit longer to find ET, but that’s okay. It’s a really large universe to search through out there.”

In other words, you may be able to lower the organizational roadblocks to creativity by lowering the stakes necessary to get going. Piggybacking your weird ideas onto “practical” pursuits can create enough space to see where they lead without having to constantly justify them.

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Lock On To An Emotional Narrative

Truly creative, discovery-driven work necessarily involves the possibility of failure and dead ends—but there’s no way to predict them in advance. Simply making progress at all requires a subliminal cost-benefit analysis to constantly run in the background: Should we stick a fork in this and try something else? Or is an insight within reach?

It helps when the engine driving your creative curiosity is fueled by emotion, not just data and theory. And yes, this happens even in science. “Usually we talk about the technology, we talk about the searches—we talk about how it’s going to make a difference,” Tarter says. “But the idea of detecting an extraterrestrial signal has within it a really potential and hopeful message—one that especially resonates with young people who believe that they might not have a very nice planet to live on in the future, and that something needs to be done.”


And that message has nothing to do with making first contact with an advanced species. Instead, it’s all about what Tarter and many of her SETI colleagues call “the archaeology of the future.”

“If we ever see an extraterrestrial signal, any information in that signal will be telling us about their past, because of the finite speed of light and the distance it will have traveled to reach us,” Tarter explains. (In other words: If we receive a signal from 100 light years away, it’ll be 100 years old by the time it reaches us.) “But it will also imply that we can have a long future ourselves, because SETI can’t successfully detect anything unless, on average, technological civilizations tend to survive for a long time.

So if we do detect a message, we know that it’s possible to have a long future,” Tarter concludes. “And for me, that’s a hell of a motivation to keep going.” So think of that the next time you’re banging your head against a thorny design problem.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.