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The Blind Physicist Who May Find ET

By John M. Williams Kent Cullers, who has been blind since birth, has never glimpsed the Milky Way or witnessed a full moon on a clear summer night. But the 51-year-old physicist is no stranger to star-gazing. As a senior researcher at the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) in Mountain View, Calif., Cullers has been for decades a guiding light in the quest for life in the cosmos.

Perhaps you saw the 1997 movie Contact, which had a character modeled after him. Since 1985, Cullers has led SETI's Targeted Search Signal Detection team, where he develops, evaluates, and implements complex algorithms that allow scientists to sift through radio signals originating from distant star systems. He was the first blind student to earn a doctorate in physics in the U.S. Cullers is also a leader in the rarified field of envisioning and designing advanced radio telescopes that scan wider and wider swaths of the skies.

When it comes to communicating on terra firma, Cullers uses a variety of assistive technology devices to get his ideas across and keep open his lines of communication with the sighted world. His example proves yet again that the best way to employ assistive technology is to have a healthy mix of old tools that work with newer ones that add abilities.

RUBBER BANDS AND WAX. To get his ideas across graphically, Cullers uses a simple, raised-line drawing kit developed for blind people. These kits could be made up of small stakes and rubber bands or thin lines of wax. He has used these drawings to convey ideas for designs of new telescope systems. Some of Cullers' diagrams are 30 years old, and they're wrapped in tightly sealed plastic bags to prevent them from fragmenting.

He also uses a decades-old system called Optacon, which consists of a photocell camera attached to a electronically controlled matrix of 144 vibrating pins that move up and down to represent letters. As the user slowly moves the camera across the page, letters from words are translated into vibrating raised pins that cover about half the index finger. People with impaired vision can scan the camera over a document or computer screen and piece together an image in their mind. "The Optacon is a bit slow, but it's very accurate," says Cullers.

On the other end of the spectrum, Cullers loves "carrying around technologies." He uses two computers: a portable Windows laptop and a BrailleNote, a small computer the size of a mini-notebook that runs on WindowsCE and has a tactile input and output interface. "I can do all of my word processing, mathematics, e-mails, and other activities," says Cullers.

DOWNSIDE. The BrailleNote can connect to other Windows computers via serial or parallel ports as well as through PC cards and infrared ports. It has a built-in modem that makes it easy to log on to the Internet through a standard phone line. The device also easily converts to a Braille terminal for a standard PC. "It has great communications capabilities, so I can connect it to the Windows machine. Once connected, I have a display identical to what is on the Windows box," he points out.

The downside? Using the BrailleNote as an input/outpout terminal allows Cullers to read a standard screen one line at a time, so he has to move the display around to get what he wants if the Braille translation of the display doesn't fall to the right place. Cullers also likes using a text-to-speech program on his Windows laptop. But sometimes software conflicts cause the program to read text Cullers isn't interested in. When this occurs, he goes back to the BrailleNote.

To do his number-crunching, Cullers uses a Braille code of mathematics, called the Nemeth Code. This system allows any print mathematical representation to be mapped into a tactile format. Cullers often builds his own specialized computer programs to help determine what type of computer system will be required to analyze radio signals and build radio telescopes.

While he does lots of math on computers, much of his computational innovation takes place in the gray matter between his ears. He moves easily from the old to new technology and vice versa. "I could not be as effective as I am without the old and new technology," he says. Effective is an understatement. He has penned 50 articles using assistive technology products.

INSPIRATION. Cullers' achievements illustrate how using assistive technology can allow a person with disabilities to break into a rigorous, intellectual field. His example has clearly had an effect in the blind community. "I heard Dr. Cullers at Georgia Tech in 1999, and he was awe-inspiring. I was so glad he talked about using Braille in his work. He convinced me to return to it," says 25-year-old Caroline Devine of Miami, Florida. Devine is studying mathematics at Florida State University and computer programming at a state-sponsored program for the blind.

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. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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