Hollywood Gives SETI Its Big Break
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.
Kent Cullers and his colleagues are not crackpots. They do not believe that little green men ever landed on Earth or abducted anyone. They do not even believe in UFOs.Skip to next paragraph
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And now, thanks to the power of Hollywood, even the baggers at the neighborhood Buy & Save understand how Dr. Cullers and his colleagues spend their time at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. "Gosh, what you do is sure harder than I thought," the checkout clerk told Cullers after seeing the movie "Contact." He instantly recognized the blind character, Kent Clark, who is closely modeled on Cullers.
"Contact" has done for SETI and Cullers's half of it - Project Phoenix - what "Men in Black" has done for Ray-Bans. For years, the scientists at SETI have patiently explained to a skeptical public and often hostile peers that what they do is practice painstaking and legitimate science.
But spending millions of dollars annually to keep an ear cocked to the heavens, analyzing reams of computer data, and speculating on advanced civilizations somewhere "out there" has been a tough sell.
Last month's release of "Contact," based on the novel by the late Carl Sagan, has given invaluable credibility - and more than a touch of romance - to both SETI's message and image. "It's nice to have a movie say it for me rather than me having to rant and rave," Cullers says, laughing with delight in the small, spare office where he manages the project. "We are proud of this movie. We've been understood a little better as human beings."
Real science on wide screen
It has also turned the physicist's life inside out. There's less time for science these days - media requests and public inquiries pour through the doors of Phoenix's inconspicuous offices on Landings Drive (SETI folks insist the address is pure coincidence), surrounded by Silicon Valley high-tech firms.
The film goes a long way toward showing the real-life science that puts a SETI scientist in contact with an alien race (Cullers's boss, Jill Tarter, is played by Jodie Foster).
" 'Contact' is the best education tool that's ever come along," says Peter Backus, Project Phoenix software systems manager.
In fact, the folks at Phoenix happily admit to being a bunch of boring scientists who happen to spend their careers listening to radio signals bouncing around the galaxy, hoping that at least one of them comes from an intelligent alien civilization. There have been a lot of false alarms, but no contact yet.
Still, "Contact" has been SETI's biggest boost since Congress, after financing the search in one way or another since 1970, slashed its funding in 1993 from $10 million a year to zero and forced NASA to cut formal ties. Since then, NASA administrators are barred by Congress from even discussing SETI, although they do contract the institute and 60 of its scientists for other projects ranging from the study of the origins of life in the universe to how to protect spacecraft from bacterial contamination.