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SETI public: NYT article on Kent Cullers

Also known as Ellie Arroway's fellow scientist portrayed in Contact:


Photo of Kent Cullers:


'The Milky Way Is a Pizza' 

Kent Cullers is chief of research for the Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, 
Calif. He spoke recently with Jeff Greenwald about how a 
blind man comes to scan the heavens. 

The best way to put it, I guess, is that I have no memory of 
sight. I was born in 1949, seven weeks premature. In the 
incubator, I was given 100 percent oxygen for 10 days -- far
too much. The blood vessels in my retinas were damaged. So I 
emerged, like many children born in my era, totally blind. 

I got interested in astronomy because my father, a physicist 
himself, read to me from an early age. He read from two books: 
"The Knights of the Round Table" and "The Golden Book of
Astronomy." The descriptions were so stunningly vivid that I 
could imagine reaching out and touching the cold planets. I 
could imagine being near a hot, distant star that was very 
much like a sun. 

My mental image of something like a planet is, strangely enough, 
an object that I can hold in my hand. Saturn has rings around it; 
they're kind of metallic. The Milky Way is easy; it's a pizza. 
The shape and distribution of matter is generally right. 

I was lucky, in that I went through the school system at the time 
when it was geared up to educate a large population of blind children. 
Blindness was made almost invisible; it was part of the background. 
I was out with my sighted compatriots, playing four-square, tetherball, 
even a weird form of baseball. In high school, all of my books were in 

Then I went to college, and suddenly almost nothing was in Braille. 
I had to get everything from lectures. I would hear this scratching 
on the board, and the teacher would go, "This equation [scribble, 
scribble] yields this equation [scribble, scribble]." I'd be utterly 
lost. I knew that the diagrams on the blackboard were fairly simple. 
Yet they were not in my head -- and they had to get there. I had to 
spend time, every day, making sure that I understood that kind of 
diagrammatic material, which was not natural to me at all. That was 
as close as I ever came to giving up -- because I realized that my 
problem was entirely a problem of not being able to see. 

As far as I know, I'm the first physicist who has been totally blind 
since birth. It's hard to prove something like that, but I've been 
claiming it for 30 years now, and no one has said it isn't true. 
The reason is not that I'm so desperately clever, or anything like 
that. The fact is that the technology to allow me to do physics 
came along at the time that I wanted to do physics. 

For many years, I concentrated on science and mathematics. I got 
interested in astronomy again when I found out that I could connect 
my senses with it. When I learned that radio astronomy could tell 
you a great deal about the Universe -- by listening to, and analyzing 
with computers, the sounds of the Universe -- I got very, very 
interested. Then I heard about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial 

The human ear is a very good analyzer of frequency. We can easily
distinguish a note from a cough. I teach computers to do what humans
do, and find patterns in cosmic noise: to find out what is natural 
static and what, perhaps, could be evidence of a distant technology. 
The wonderful thing, of course, is that computers can detect signals 
a million times weaker than the ones we can, and do so a million 
times faster. 

One day, I was at the giant radio telescope at Arecibo, P.R. I was
playing with the tuner, listening to an incoming signal from a cloud 
of interstellar gas, when the operator said to me: "For the next 45 
minutes, you've got the telescope all to yourself. Where would you 
like to point it?" The fact was, I hadn't any idea. Although I was 
utterly convinced that extraterrestrial intelligence was out there 
to be found and I had the best instrument in the world to find it, 
I didn't know where to begin. That gave me, in a very real way, a 
feeling for the vastness of the search. And it's made me patient 
ever since. 

          May 28, 2000