BLIND ALMOST SINCE BIRTH, PHYSICIST Kent Cullers beholds the cosmos by listening to its peculiar music—electromagnetic signals that hum through space. “My sensory connection to the wider universe is not vision but radio waves,” says Cullers, 47, rocking in his grandfather’s oak chair, a quaint touch in his spare, metallic office at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “When I’m on the air, I’m out there, somewhere.”
But is anyone else? As manager of SETI’s Project Phoenix, Cullers grapples daily with that conundrum. Don’t confuse him with the costumed conspiracy theorists who last week descended on Roswell, N.Mex., to mark the golden anniversary of an alleged spaceship crash. He and about 20 colleagues are engaged in serious science. Reasoning that an advanced alien culture might have developed wireless communications, they’re using huge radio telescopes to pick up electromagnetic waves from some distant planet’s version of radio, television or radar. Their work inspired Contact, a novel by the late Carl Sagan and now a Warner Bros. film of that name with Jodie Foster as an astronomer modeled on Project Phoenix director Jill Tarter. Cullers, portrayed as a minor character, auditioned to play himself, but the role went to actor William Fichtner.
Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, Cullers & Co. have yet to dial up any aliens. And doing so may take a while. Cullers likens the project—whose radio telescopes in Green Bank, W.Va., and Woodbury, Ga., hope to scan 1,000 stars by the year 2000—-to studying the grains in a pile of sand 10 stories high and the size of a football field. “It may be my granddaughter who succeeds,” Tarter, 52, says. “But I’ve always got the champagne on ice.”
The U.S. government isn’t as patient. Founded by NASA in 1985, the SETI Institute was fully government-supported for eight years, but in 1993 Congress halted funding. Since then, corporate angels, including Hewlett-Packard founders William Hewlett and David Packard and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, have ponied up most of Project Phoenix’s $5 million annual budget. Scientists generally, if warily, support the program. Though alien contact seems remote, says David C. Black, head of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, it “would be one of the most profound things in human history.” Still, SETI personnel must sometimes battle loopy stereotypes: On a TV special titled Close Encounters, for instance, Cullers was grouped with “a woman who claimed she was the consort of King Arthur.”
He has faced steeper obstacles, however. The elder child of George Cullers, now 70, a physicist, and his wife, Wanda, 68, a college administrator, Cullers was born seven weeks prematurely in El Reno, Okla., at a time when it was standard practice to immerse preemies in pure oxygen. Overexposure destroyed Cullers’s retinas. The family moved to Temple City, Calif., where Cullers earned his ham radio license at 11 and was high school valedictorian. In 1980 he became the first blind student to receive a physics Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.
The day after graduation, Cullers joined NASA—he has worked with SETI from its inception—and since then has spent most of his scientific life at a computer. One of his most successful programs filters out earthly “noise” that clutters SETI’s radio reception, whether it’s waves from cell phones, Howard Stern or T.J. Hooker reruns.
In domestic life, Cullers has found both love and anguish. In 1972 he married his first wife, Carol, a homemaker. They had a son, Alan, who turns 14 this month, and a daughter, Melissa, 11, but in March 1992, Carol died of meningitis. Scarcely a month later, Cullers shared what he calls “an instant mutual attraction” with French-born Lisa Powers, a Los Angeles photographer. “I was quite shocked to discover I could fall in love again,” he says. Adds Powers, 43: “What joy he communicates in his expressions—I can see his soul in his eyes.” She had first contacted him after a newspaper profile convinced her he’d be a compelling subject for a documentary. She never made the film, but in 1992 they married, settling near San Francisco with Cullers’s children and five cats. Powers often reads aloud to her husband (he favors mysteries and “good” Stephen King); they also swim, play chess and relax to Nine Inch Nails.
That is, of course, when Cullers isn’t listening for a more ethereal music he knows he may not live to hear. “It doesn’t disturb me at all,” he says, “to think I’m just laying stones on a path to this great adventure we’re on.”
ALEXANDRA HARDY in Mountain View