Visual impairment : Blind since birth
The elder child of George Cullers, a physicist, and his wife, Wanda, a college administrator, Cullers was born seven weeks prematurely in El Reno, Oklahoma, at a time when it was standard practice to immerse 'preemies' in pure oxygen. Overexposure saved his life but destroyed Cullers' retinas and left him totally blind.
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."
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.
Despite his impairment he was physically active as a child and encouraged by his parents to be a part of the educational mainstream. He was a straight-A student, a national merit scholar and class valedictorian at Temple City High School in California . He received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1980 (the first totally blind physicist in the world).
Kent favoured 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.
While in college, Kent read the report titled '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 (Director, Centre for SETI Research) 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."
From 1985 to 1990 he was the Targeted Search Signal Detection Team Leader with the SETI Institute. He developed, evaluated, and implemented optimised detection algorithms for continuous and pulsed signals originating from distant Earth-like planets. He created algorithms for both advanced special purpose and general-purpose computers.
Cullers is also a leader in the rarefied field of envisioning and designing advanced radio telescopes that scan wider and wider swaths of the skies. One of his most successful programs filters out earthly "noise" that clutters SETI's radio reception, like waves from cell phones.
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.
He resigned from NASA in October 1995, and rejoined the SETI Institute as a Senior Scientist and Project Manager for Project Phoenix. Since 2000 he has served as Director for SETI R&D.
For Kent , 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." The movie 'Contact' (starring Jodie Foster) released in 1997 had a character modelled after him.
Kent has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including NASA's Exceptional Engineering Achievement medal in 1993 and Federal Employee of the Year in 1994. He is a member of the American Astronomical Society, and a board member for the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Sensory Access Foundation, and the Peninsula Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Kent travels extensively to give talks and present papers at international science meetings. Kent has had a ham radio license since 1961, is an avid chess player, and plays both piano and guitar.
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, 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 Culler's children and five cats. Powers often reads aloud to her husband (he favours mysteries and "good" Stephen King); they also swim and play chess.
For Cullers, blindness is a small obstacle. "My blindness isn't a disability for me. It is an annoyance," he says. "I may not be able to drive a car, but that's insignificant compared to my work and my family." Insignificant indeed. Few have done more to further the search for intelligent life beyond earth. His story shows the spectacular potential for assistive technology to give a clearer, stronger voice to many people whose disabilities, in another era, might have masked their brilliance.
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."