Kent Cullers


Quicktime interview with Kent Cullers:

Kent's involvement with Contact the movie.

Doing astronomy by listening.

The first blind physicist.

Advice for young scientists.

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Kent's Universe

Dr. Kent Cullers' universe is a spiral bound book of thick plastic pages, butter-colored and embossed with galaxies and nebulae. His fingers cross light years as easily as your eyes and mine jump from constellation to constellation when we read the night sky — and with similar effect. Like all of us, Kent travels to distant worlds as his imagination leaps from star to star. That he is blind makes the journey no less exciting.

"To explore and discover one new thing is still the most exciting opportunity and the greatest excitement in my life."

Kent entered this world prematurely at a time when doctors immersed such early-born infants with underdeveloped lungs in oxygen. The treatment left him blind but saved his life, and soon he was actively absorbing as much of the world around him as his curious and eager mind could hold. "When I was five, I was read to about science by my father, who was a physicist," Kent recalls. "He'd read me magic books and astronomy books. I continued to improve at astronomy, but I never did improve at magic."

Better than Science Fiction

By age eight, Kent had learned to read Braille and was an avid reader who excelled in school. Science fiction was a mainstay. A prolific reader to this day, He polishes off "probably five books a week." If he is "lucky," he tells us, two are science fiction, a genre Kent describes as "the dreaming of science," and valuable for the way it inspires the most creative thoughts in people about what they can do.

Kent favored physics over math despite the challenges it presented; a blind scientist must grapple with data "charts" that are primarily mental. "There are many blind mathematicians," He explains. While the dynamics of math theory can be neatly contained within the mind of a mathematician, in physics, data from the real world must be correlated and graphed, a challenge for a blind person. But, he says, the "really neat" thing about physics is that it offers a way to use mathematics to understand the way the world works and to test ideas with experiments.

"And SETI is even better than science fiction because it is a real experiment." Kent pauses. "Physics without experiment is sterile."

Ham Radio and the Big DX

Dr. Cullers' interest in SETI has deep roots in another childhood pursuit, ham radio - an interest that began in 1961 when he was eleven. Still active, he has always held the most advanced ham radio operators' license possible. "Today, that license is called an 'extra,'" he says. "I began to get excited when I could talk to people in distant lands." The various accents ignited his imagination, giving him a sense of the how very different from his own were those worlds from which the distant voices emanated. He was fascinated by the way certain types of signals could cut through the noise and be detected; "not just voices," he adds, "but Morse code, as well."

Morse code sparked his thinking about the many ways information can be transmitted — and the many sources that could do the transmitting. "I was especially excited to find I could hear noise from the Sun," he recalls. "I was always looking for more distant signals." He realized that if one "got a really big telescope and aimed it at the sky," it was possible to receive signals from the Universe. "In ham radio talk," he explains, "the 'big DX' is the term for long distance. Listening for a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization is the really big DX." He smiles, "So I guess you could say I'm still going for it."

NASA Ames and the Right Greek Wedding

While in college, Kent read the report entitled Project Cyclops, the comprehensive analysis of SETI science and technology issues prepared for NASA by Bernard M. Oliver. Reading the seminal SETI study triggered a life-long passion for SETI in the young scientist. In graduate school, Kent spent a great deal of time "hanging out" at NASA Ames with researchers engaged in what was then NASA's SETI program. They patiently answered his questions and encouraged his interest in this relatively esoteric field of radio astronomy.

But it was a chance meeting at a social event that secured Kent a SETI career. "I went to the right Greek wedding." he explains. At the Berkeley wedding, he was seated directly across from Jill Tarter and they rapidly engaged in a lively discussion of Cyclops and Kent's interest in SETI. Kent remembers Jill's enthusiasm during their serendipitous meeting, "She told me, 'That's amazing, there is actually a position opening up.'" This was in 1980; the year Kent received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He accepted a post doc at Ames, and "has been at it ever since."

Seeking Connections

Today Dr. Cullers leads the research and development of future SETI projects at the Institute. His signal detection algorithms help place Institute projects on the cutting edge of SETI science and Kent's fine mind is at work each time Institute signal detection systems sieve the cosmic noise for SETI signals. And Kent's work has led to unexpected advances in other fields of science. Kent's signal detection expertise has helped planet detection teams evaluate data for natural signals from distant solar systems. And surprisingly, Kent's algorithms have helped advance technology for breast cancer detection, an area of great interest to him.

For the Institute's Director of SETI R&D, science is the most rewarding of all careers because of the interconnectedness of the methods it offers us for investigating the world. Says Kent, "To explore and discover one new thing is still the most exciting opportunity and the greatest excitement in my life."

For young people, Kent has this advice: "Whether it's art or science or something else, you should find something you really love because you have to put time into it. And then give it all you've got."

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Dec. 5, 2002

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