Brain Pickings

Astronomer Jill Tarter on the Ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Life and How She Inspired Carl Sagan’s Novel-Turned-Film Contact

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The importance of playing the long game in life, be it extraterrestrial or earthly.

Astronomer Jill Tarter grew up taking apart and reassembling her father’s radios. She is the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research — California’s institute of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — and the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the iconic 1997 film Contact, adapted from Carl Sagan’s novel of the same title. The recipient of two public service medals from NASA and the TED Prize, among ample other accolades, Tarter has spent nearly forty years searching the cosmos for alien life and advocating for the importance of that inquiry.

In this short video from NOVA, Tarter recounts how Sagan and Ann Druyan contacted her about the novel and explores the broader question of why the search for extraterrestrial life matters — and matters enormously:

In the book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating read on why emotional recall is the secret to better memory — Tarter speaks to the importance of playing the long game in the search for extraterrestrial life:

I don’t get out of bed every morning thinking, “Will I find extraterrestrial intelligence today?” But I do think every day, “How can I improve the search?” Fifty years of silence doesn’t mean SETI is a failure; it means we’re just getting started. We may not succeed tomorrow or next year or next decade or even next century, but a critical part of our job is passing on what we’ve learned to the future generations of cosmic scientists.

What a wonderful disposition toward life, extraterrestrial or earthly — to think how much more we could achieve and with what greater ease we could live if we only applied this to our everyday lives, from the search for love to the conquest of a project.

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July 23, 1951: How a Vintage Children’s Book Saved New York’s Iconic Little Red Lighthouse

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A timeless testament to the power of stirring the collective imagination.

In 1880, a little lighthouse was erected on New Jersey’s Sandy Hook to guide arriving ships into New York Harbor. But by 1917, this friendly nocturnal sherpa had become obsolete, so it was dismantled and put in storage. Four years later, it was reassembled on the Hudson River, in Harlem, where it warned sailors along this vital industrial route about a fiercely dangerous part of the shore called Jeffrey’s Hook. The relocated lighthouse, renamed Jeffrey’s Hook Light, stood forty feet tall, proud of its responsibility and it status as the only lighthouse on the island of Manhattan.

Its glory days, however, lasted only a decade. The formidable George Washington Bridge was built to tower over it in 1931 and the steel giant’s bright lights rendered the little lighthouse obsolete once more. But it had already captured the hearts and imagination of the community and, eventually, the nation: In 1942, children’s book author Hildegarde Swift (1890–1977) wrote The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (public library) — a charming homage to the lonesome landmark that portrays the lighthouse as the dutiful and intrepid guardian of the river, featuring gorgeous illustrations by none other than the great Lynd Ward (1905–1985), godfather of the graphic novel.

Once upon a time a little lighthouse was built on a sharp point of the shore in the Hudson Valley.

It was round and fat and red.

It was fat and red and jolly.

And it was VERY, VERY PROUD.

In 1951, after decommissioning the lighthouse and extinguishing its lamp, the U.S. Coast Guard moved to dismantle it and auction off the parts, but a public outcry bubbled up and people flooded city officials with letters and money seeking to save the iconic lighthouse — all thanks to the book, which had by then become beloved by a generation.

On July 23, 1951, the Coast Guard surrendered to the public outpour of love and gave the property to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1979, it was inducted into the National Register of Historic Parks. In 2000, it received a fresh coat of red paint, true to its historic color in The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, which was itself restored and republished in 2003 and remains a heartening testament to the fact that whenever the collective imagination is stirred in a meaningful way, social good invariably results.

Today, the little red lighthouse stands as an iconic piece of New York’s history, as well as a spectacular biking destination.

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Debriefing: Susan Sontag Reads from I, Etcetera

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“…an absent body one might be reluctant to imagine undressed.”

Summer is the season of fiction, it is said — said here, now, at least. Susan Sontag may be best-known for her remarkable critical essays on photography, courage and resistance, and the transcendence of books, her strong opinions on literature, her crusade against stereotypes, her enchanting diaries, and other nonfiction feats, but she was no stranger to fiction.

In this 1979 recording preserved by the wonderful UbuWeb sound archive, Sontag reads the short story “Debriefing” from her 1978 collection I, etcetera: Stories (public library), which was recently released as an ebook for the very first time — please enjoy.

Complement with Sontag on love, education, “aesthetic consumerism,” aphorisms and the commodification of wisdom, and why lists appeal to us.

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