Hollywood Gives SETI Its Big Break

STAR POWER

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

After NASA pulled the plug, SETI founder and director Frank Drake and his crew refused to pack up the search he began 32 years earlier as a young astronomer fresh from Harvard University. He hooked up with technology millionaires William Hewlett and David Packard, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, each of whom agreed to kick in $1 million or more a year to keep the dream alive. A $20 million bequest last year from the estate of another Hewlett Packard executive helped SETI establish Phoenix, which takes half of SETI's annual $8 million budget.

Now "Contact" has turned Drake's eye on another prize. "The movie has generated enthusiasm in the public, among members of Congress, and in NASA," says the professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "We believe that given a few more years, the groundswell will be so great that NASA will feel it's safe to engage in SETI again."

Drake, who drinks coffee from an "X-Files" mug and sports a green, wax head of the Roswell Alien on his desk, loves what "Contact" has done around headquarters. Since it opened, the number of weekly hits on the project's Web site has tripled, and prompted Phoenix to take credit-card donations over the Internet (about $2,000 so far). It is hard to imagine a pep talk that could be as inspiring as Jodie Foster, et al., turning your life into a universe-dashing adventure. "It has energized the staff," Drake says. "To see people doing what you have been doing for years and in exactly the same way, yet with glamour, provokes a lot of enthusiasm."

Posters of the movie seem to jump from every wall, as do copies of a letter from the producers apologizing for not giving SETI screen credit, despite its considerable technical support during the filmmaking. They even screen-tested Cullers to play his counterpart in the movie. He is good-natured about having failed. "Most days I have enough trouble playing myself," he laughs.

Power doubles every 250 days

But Phoenix does not need the movie to go where no man, or woman, has gone before. When Drake started in 1960, he logged 200 hours monitoring two stars on one radio channel. Since then, the power of receivers and computers has doubled every 250 days. Phoenix equipment replicates Drake's initial 200 hours' work in 1/10th of a second, searching 14 million channels with equipment 100 trillion times more powerful than Drake used then. Scientists expect to soon employ 1 billion channel receivers.

Yet, given the vastness of the cosmos, Phoenix's goal seems remarkably modest. Our galaxy has between 200 and 400 billion stars. The project is slated to complete its mission by 2001, methodically searching signals from the nearest 1,000 sun-like star systems. After that, Drake hopes Phoenix will push farther into the galaxy.

Although the cinematic hype will die quickly, the movie is "always going to be a point of reference," says SETI scientist Seth Shostak. "Years from now, when people ask what we do, we can always say: "Remember that movie 'Contact'...?"

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