Skip to main content

The Search for Extraterrestrials with Kent Cullers.

Physicist Kent Cullers is Project Manager with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute. A character in the new film "Contact" is based on Cullers. Cullers has been blind since birth and was the first totally blind physicist in the United States.


Other segments from the episode on July 30, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 30, 1997: Interview with Kent Cullers; Interview with John Szwed.


Date: JULY 30, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 073001np.217
Head: Kent Cullers
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"Men in Black," "Contact," "The Roswell Report," the Pathfinder mission to Mars -- this summer, everyone seems to have extraterrestrials on their minds. My guest Kent Cullers is part of the scientific search for them. He's project manager at the SETI Institute. "SETI" is an acronym for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Cullers worked for SETI through the '80s and early '90s, when it was part of NASA. Congress terminated SETI's funding in 1993 and it's been independently funded since then. Cullers has developed computer programs and algorithms for detecting signals originating from distant planets.

He can't use his eyes in his search. Cullers is blind. In fact, the blind scientist in the new movie "Contact" is based on Cullers. He's searching for radio signals from distant planets. I asked him why scientists assume that extraterrestrials would use radio waves to communicate with us.

KENT CULLERS, PROJECT MANAGER, SETI: Well, actually, we don't assume quite that much. The big searches for extraterrestrial intelligence, and there have been many over the years that have made different assumptions, but the big ones assume that they're looking for the signature of another technology that's at least as advanced as we are.

And we put out a signature every day. There are signals from this planet that are a billion times stronger than they should be if they were purely natural; if they weren't caused by intelligent technology. Of course, when we point our big radio antennas, which we call radio telescopes, we're pointing fundamentally at a star and the planets included. And we're looking for a signature of another planet like us.

So they may or may not be transmitting signals on purpose for us to receive. But if they're like us, we'll receive them anyway.

GROSS: So the signals wouldn't necessarily say, "Earthlings, we've come to bring you this message." It just might be things that they are transmitting to themselves or whatever that we would be picking up.

CULLERS: Absolutely. The kind of thing that we transmit every day that goes over the horizon out into deep space are things like our TV signals, our radar signals. And in fact, that's exactly the kinds of detectors that I designed for the SETI system that I now manage.

I look for the signatures of things like our TVs and things like our radars.

GROSS: How long would it take for those waves to reach us? In other words, if you were lucky enough to pick up a signal from another planet, when would that signal have been transmitted?

CULLERS: Well, radio is just another kind of electromagnetic radiation, just like light and gamma rays and many other things. And so, it travels at the speed of light. So, depending on how distant the civilization is, by the time we get the message, it will be old. It will be at least four years old because our closest star is four light-years away.

And what we believe is that if our understanding of the universe is right, there are signals touching you and me right now, already transmitted from distant civilizations, and they've now had time to be transmitted and arrive. But anything that we receive today, tomorrow or in the future, will be old news for that civilization.

GROSS: There's a scene in the movie Contact where, you know, Jodie Foster is listening with headphones, searching for signals from other planets. Do you actually sit there with headphones and listen?

CULLERS: I wish I could say that I got to do that most of my day. Most of my day I actually listen and talk to people, either about how systems work or about how we're going to plan the next day.

But in fact, most astronomers really do listen through headphones -- radio astronomers, anyway. But what they're doing is not listening for signals. The computers do that a thousand or a million times better than a human being can do.

But what they're listening for are the general noises and characteristics of the systems, and we use it as a diagnostic. And so, we are constantly listening with headphones. I always do it. There are certain places in the sky, which are very unusual, which sound unusual because they have enormous clouds of gas or something that transmit strange radio signals.

And that you can hear. But the artificial signals from other intelligent civilizations we feel will be too weak for that, and so we let the computers do the looking for those kinds of signals.

GROSS: If you came across a signal from another star or another planet, how would you know that's what it was? What would distinguish it from all the other signals out there?

CULLERS: Well you know, that's actually a very interesting kind of question. You don't know. You hope you know. You hope that your first, best guesses are right. And let me tell you what those guesses are.

We guess that a signal transmitted by an intelligent civilization will be either concentrated in frequency, sort of like a whistle.


Like that. Or concentrated in time.


Like a pulse. The way that we do with our television and radar -- the primary signature of TV is not the TV program which is spread all over the spectrum, but a carrier which comes along with it, which has about half the power.

So this concentration of energy in a very narrow place, either in frequency or time, is something that no natural thing can do, but the transmitters that we make do very easily. So, that concentration is the first thing in the pattern we're looking for.

But I've got to tell you that we don't know much about the universe yet. Maybe there's something out there that really could look like an intelligent signal, but in fact is not -- that's a new natural phenomenon.

So the very first thing we will do when we're convinced that we've detected something from beyond the Solar System that passes all of our tests, is convene a committee of internationally-renowned scientists to tell us whether there could be a natural explanation.

A perfect example of that is pulsars. Pulsars give a pulsing, regular signal -- it's so regular that you can set your clock by it, literally. And those regular signals at first could not be explained, and so until they were explained, people thought that they might well be intelligent. And when a natural explanation was found, a rotating star that emitted energy in a very regular way, then we were happy with that.

Essentially, if you want to believe in intelligence out there, you want amazing proof -- proof that can't be explained in any other way.

GROSS: What's the closest you've come to thinking that you actually hit on a signal transmitted from intelligent beings from another planet or another star?

CULLERS: Well, we've come close many times, but as in many other businesses, a miss is as good as a mile. Because you think you have something, in the end if it melts away, you have absolutely nothing. It's not as if you're halfway there.

The close calls, when we could identify them -- which is often, in our particular program because it's the biggest and designed to do just that -- to identify the close calls. The close calls were all terrestrial events.

They were either satellites that we launched or things on the Earth that were kind of creeping into the side of the radio antenna -- the radio telescope -- very much the way light from the cities gets into a visual telescope when you try to point it at the dark sky.

And so over the years, there have been some very close calls, if you will -- very exciting. But the close calls, exciting as they were, have never yet been the real thing.

GROSS: You know, when you had a close call, though, did you start thinking: This is it. Eureka -- I have found it at last?

CULLERS: Oh, absolutely. All of us at SETI are skeptical people. We don't just start by saying: "this is the real thing -- prove it isn't." We start by saying: "what could this be? Could this be a system problem? Could it be a satellite? You know, could it be a communications link that we don't know about?"

We have a whole database that's supposed to let us know when this kind of incidental signal happens. But of course, we never have everything in it that we should. So we start out with a skeptical attitude, but let me tell you about a close call and what the close calls usually turn out to be, so that you can understand how exciting it does get.

Typically, unfortunately, your close calls happen when part of your system isn't working. That's exactly why you're not sure about whether you have something coming from the Earth or coming from space. Usually, we like to look at the sky with multiple antennas whenever we possibly can. And that's what we do most of the time.

So if you see the signal from two places on the Earth or more, and both places think that the signal is coming from the sky, and they have the same location for it, then you immediately start to believe strongly in its reality, because you get exactly the same description from your multiple sites.

Well, sometimes one of the sites goes down, but we continue to observe, and what we do is we move the antenna back and forth on the sky when we think we have something. When you move it away from what you think you've got, the signal better go away. If it's creeping in from the Earth, it probably won't and it will stay there and you'll rule it out.

So what you want is, you point on the source and you get the signal off the course, the signal goes away. And so when we have only one site, that's what we start doing when we think we have something real.

And the things that have gotten us most excited over the years persist so long that the star sets in the sky, just the way the sun sets, and then you wait for 24 hours and you have 24 hours to think it over before the source rises again, or roughly 24 hours.

And people go through all stages of excitement and all stages of wondering and we look through our databases and do things in a great hurry and stay up all night, and so that we get crazy ideas. And always, so far, by the next day, the signal is gone.

Either it has disappeared utterly, at which point we simply throw it out, and of course we watch that frequency from time to time to see if we can ever really identify it; or it comes back in a way that we can tell what it is for sure -- that it's a satellite or something in a place that we weren't expecting it.

GROSS: My guest is physicist Kent Cullers. The character of the blind scientist in the movie Contact is based on him. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Kent Cullers, project manager at the SETI Institute. "SETI" is the acronym for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence."

What are the odds that you give yourself of actually finding a real signal in your lifetime?

CULLERS: I think that the chances of contact in my lifetime are, oh, I don't know, an optimistic 10 percent. Meaning, I feel optimistic that it may be better than that, but something like 10 percent. And I'll tell you why.

If the search were to go on at the level it is today, that number would be way too high. But the search is growing now, in the same way that computer technology is growing. That is to say, a doubling time of three or four years.

And in our lifetime, that means that the searches will be vast. And so, I actually think that the chances of exploring a fair part of the galaxy for radio signals and finding something like us is -- that those chances are good.

GROSS: Translated, this means if things go really well, there's a 90 percent chance that you'll never find what you're looking for. That's not the odds people want to face when they go to work every day. So what keeps you going? You know, the odds are really against you in a lot of ways?

CULLERS: Well, wait. There's a difference between "never" and "not in my lifetime."

GROSS: Right.

CULLERS: You know, I'm one of these semi-altruistic ambitious people, and it goes sort of like this: I get to do a wonderful thing every day. I get to play with computers, develop utterly new ways to search the universe, at least in my one small area of research. And that in itself is wonderful. I get to play with good toys. I get to develop new techniques.

On the other hand, if we succeed in my lifetime or later, even if I just lay the stepping stones along the path, if we succeed, we will have changed humanity's view of itself. Now, there aren't very many projects in the world that I could be part of that have even that possibility.

So although the goal is noble, and I hope we do it soon -- my lifetime would be great -- but "soon" in cosmic terms, at any rate. Getting there is at least half the fun, playing with my toys.

GROSS: Now you are practically just trying to receive signals from outer space, but you're not intentionally sending signals to other planets and to other stars. Why aren't we sending out radio transmissions to the extraterrestrials who might be out there, in the hopes that they'll find us?

CULLERS: Well, you actually make a very good point here, which I should have made myself. We don't intentionally transmit signals. None of the major search projects do that. Part of the reason is what I said earlier: we believe that there are already signals which have been sent that we can detect touching us now.

And so, the receiving is so much likely to pay off soon. And especially when we were a project that was funded by Congress, you had to convince people that we had something that could pay off soon, because that's how Congress thinks very often.

So we don't transmit because we know that the fastest payoff is likely to be 100 years in the future, and that's not a short enough time scale for most human beings to get interested in.

Also, there actually have been some experiments transmitted, and there were a lot of complaints. Who should speak for Earth? And so we think we should think that one over before we start transmitting "the message" to the stars.

GROSS: Oh, gosh, you'll never get it done if you have to go through that.


Would agents be involved in this process?


CULLERS: You know, but it brings up an interesting point, and one that in some sense is impossible to cope with in any simple way.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CULLERS: If we receive, it will be information known the world wide. Everyone will know on what frequency the signal was transmitted and what kind of signal it is. The reason we need to do that is to do the scientific confirmation process. There's no reasonable way to keep it secret.

In our last "almost" event that we had, the New York Times was notified within a couple of hours of our thinking that we might have found something that could be a signal. And we had to tell them that this happens all the time, and they shouldn't get excited until we got excited.

GROSS: My guest is Kent Cullers, and he's project manager of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence through Project Phoenix, which is basically the privately-funded incarnation of what had formerly been funded by NASA before Congress withdrew the funding.

There's also a character in the new movie Contact based on Kent Cullers. The character of the blind astronomer in Project SETI. And Kent Cullers, you are blind and have been...

CULLERS: Absolutely.

GROSS: ... blind since birth. What happened?

CULLERS: Well, I am typical of many people about my age, which I'm forced to admit is now 48, having just had a birthday. And people of my era were discovering the new miracle of oxygen for premature babies.

I was a premature baby. They gave me pure oxygen for 10 days. And that kept me alive. And I would never for a moment regret that in my wildest imaginings, but it blinded me as well.

What happens is that the vessels of the retina overgrow later, and are -- and the retina is permanently damaged. So for years in the school system, there was a sudden increase in people who were blind, but in other ways normal.

And they developed educational programs to cope with this and so on. And so the character of "blindness" in our century, in the later half of the 20th century, has gone through many changes with first, not so many blind people; then a lot of blind babies and young adults; and now, of course, the great -- most of the blindness is among the elderly.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting. As a scientist, when you were born, science both saved your life and let you down at the same time.

CULLERS: Well, that's right, but it also did some other wonderful things for me. I probably was the first totally blind physicist in the world.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CULLERS: And, you know, part of that's motivation on my part, and you know, persistence enough to go through the programs in physics and so on. But part of it was simply that the technology was ready at the time that I was ready.

All these amazing devices for the blind -- things that would take a picture from a camera and put it on your finger so that I could read computer screens; things that would talk to me so that I could hear things from computer and make braille. And all this kind of stuff -- all that technology happened just when I was going to grad school.

GROSS: Actually, you should explain to us a little bit how you can search for extraterrestrial intelligence when you don't have the use of your eyes.

CULLERS: Well, you know, that's both a very simple thing and a hard thing to explain. The simple thing is to say: all I did was design computer programs that do that job. Anyone could have done it. People today doing physics everywhere are simply extending their senses. I just had to go to a little more effort to extend mine, but essentially that's what the computers do for me.

And what they do is help me do a job that I may be well-suited for. I naturally analyzed signals with my ears all my life. First, with ham radio and later in physical problems. I listened to them. I could tell how much energy was at different frequencies. I knew what they sounded like and I knew how to tell the computers what to do.

So essentially, I interact as many other people do nowadays, through their machines. And the wonder of the technology is that I can do the job just as many other people could.

GROSS: Did you see or at least hear the movie Contact?

CULLERS: Oh, absolutely. I heard the movie Contact a couple of times, and I always say I go "see" a movie, even though I know a little something's missing. But I went with my wife, who is a well-known photographer and videographer, and she sort of gave me a director's-eye view of that movie. So I may have seen it better than a lot of people did.

GROSS: There's a character who's based on you in the movie. What did you think of the portrayal?

CULLERS: Well, first of all, I liked the portrayal very much. And I liked the actor very much. We met at the premier and took pictures together and talked a little bit.

He got rather into the role. He claims, perhaps only to flatter me, that he trained on some tapes that I made during my own screen test. In the early days of the movie, we thought maybe I might play that part. But perhaps I...

GROSS: You weren't good enough? You weren't convincing as yourself?

CULLERS: That's absolutely right. My wife says that sort of it consistent with my acting ability. That's right.


So how true -- how accurate is the movie's depiction of the work that you and the other astronomers at SETI do?

CULLERS: There is a lot of science in Contact. It actually tries to deal with issues like: what is religion? What is science? And how can you possibly tell the world about an experience that you, yourself, probably didn't perceive correctly? Whether every scene was true to life in the technical sense, probably not.

But it conveyed the right impression and may -- I spend a lot of my time with educational programs trying to get people into science. And this movie may have done more for that goal than all the work I've done over the years, because I think it portrays science as it really is.

GROSS: Kent Cullers is project manager at the SETI Institute, where he searches for radio signals from distant planets. He'll be back in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with physicist Kent Cullers. He's the project manager at the SETI Institute where he searches for extraterrestrial intelligence by scanning the skies for radio signals from other planets. He's been blind since birth. The character of the blind scientist in the new movie Contact is based on him.

Now, how did you fall in love with astronomy without the benefit of actually seeing the night sky?

CULLERS: Well, it's almost as if I did see the night sky. From a very early age, from age five, my father read me two kinds of things for bedtime stories. One -- things about magic -- things like King Arthur's Court; and the other was the Golden Book of Astronomy.

And so the descriptions were so good, and he is a physicist and he made sure that they were good for me. He described them in terms -- you know, "if you could touch it, it would be like this;" you know, "it would be colder than anything you've ever touched" and "it would burn your fingers" and, you know, this kind of stuff.

So I had a very vivid physical impression of the universe. It was just beyond my fingertips. So that probably bent the tree, so to speak, and I grew into a physicist or an astronomer or some kind of science. And the thing that got me into astronomy itself was through SETI.

I was really a pure physicist, and then I discovered that it was theoretically possible that we could find other civilizations like ourselves. And I said that's gotta be the most exciting thing in the world, and here I am.

GROSS: Now, did you have other scientist friends? Or you father, for instance, who was a physicist, who thought: this is kind of kooky, you know, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- can't you do something more rational?

CULLERS: Well, interestingly enough, most of the people that I knew well enough to have as friends listened to me long enough that I could prove to them that SETI was physics and engineering and computing, and not far-out stuff. The payoff is far-out. The payoff could be very exciting and is far-out in time. It may take a long time before it happens.

And the danger there is that you may end up doing bad science, but because you have no check, because you don't expect your payoff to come soon, you don't know that your science is bad. And that's the only thing that my professors and other advisers warned me about. They said: "you know, people may not be willing to fund this; people may not be willing to believe it, but if you want to do it and you think you can, go ahead."

So mostly I was actually supported in this. There were a few people who said I was throwing my career away.

GROSS: Well, the comments about funding were, of course, prescient. I mean, recently the government withdrew its funding from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence as it was run by NASA. So now, the SETI that you work with is independently funded.

Has it changed a lot, in any way, because of it being privately funded?

CULLERS: Well in a sense, half of it was lost at once. There was a very big survey of the entire sky that was lost right away because it was so tied up with NASA telescopes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CULLERS: The search that we're doing looks at the thousand nearby sun-like stars, within 100 light-years. And so -- so part of the search was lost. That was the biggest change. Beyond that, we've gotten more efficient. We've actually built more equipment. We've been able to do some things that NASA was only contemplating at the time.

So I would say, overall, the search has gotten better. We've made good use of slightly less money and it looks like we will exist into the indefinite future, which is the important thing, because we've got to exist for long enough for the search to get really big.

GROSS: You know, I find myself alternating between thinking it's just absurd to think that anyone's going to find life in a distant planet -- between that and thinking it's absurd to think that there isn't life someplace else out in this or in another galaxy.

Does it bother you, though, that so many people who really believe in extraterrestrial life are real kooks?


You know, I mean, not all of them, but a lot of them who are just really obsessed with it, are really, you know, a little out there.

CULLERS: I've got to say that there are people who agree with my point of view on extraterrestrial life for reasons that I find unconvincing, to say the least. And it bothers me only because my credibility is diminished by association, so to speak.

You know, I constantly have to say: "no, this is real physics. This is real astronomy." And: "no, we want proof that everyone can confirm. We don't think we have any alien signals hiding in a closet anywhere."

GROSS: Now, what did you make of the whole Roswell story, where, you know, a lot of true believers think that there was a space craft -- an extraterrestrial UFO that crashed in 1947 in New Mexico. Whereas the government is saying that it was a weather balloon and crash-test dummies that were parachuted to the ground in military tests.

Do you believe the government's story?

CULLERS: Well, fundamentally, although the government story hasn't been exactly the same over the years, yes I do. The one thing that I am as certain of as I can be is that whatever happened at Roswell, it has nothing to do with extraterrestrial civilizations.

And the argument for that is pure and physical. It has to do with the great expense, either in time or energy or both, of moving physical objects between the stars.

You know, I can communicate across the galaxy for a dollar. That would be the cost of the electrical energy to send the radio waves that could be received by our technology way out there. To travel across the galaxy would take all the resources of this civilization for the next 500,000 years just to mount the trip.

There's a vast difference in those things. And I don't think that other civilizations, advanced as they may be, can send their graduate students here to tease the natives. I just don't think it's -- I don't think it's plausible.

GROSS: So you're not expecting a UFO to come crashing to Earth any day now.


GROSS: That's not how you're expecting to find extraterrestrial life?

CULLERS: Absolutely not. As Carl Sagan used to say quite often: I can do a simple calculation that says that maybe every 100,000 years an advanced civilization might send a probe to this planet. And if that's what we were getting, I might investigate it. But when we get 100,000 reports a year, that's a whole different thing, and most of those have got to be nonsense.

GROSS: Well, Kent Cullers I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CULLERS: Well, it's been a great pleasure and thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Kent Cullers is project manager at the SETI Institute.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Kent Cullers
High: Physicist Kent Cullers is project manager with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute. A character in the new film "Contact" is based on Cullers. Cullers has been blind since birth and was the first totally blind physicist in the United States.
Spec: Movie Industry; Contact; SETI; Astronautics and Space; Health and Medicine; Blindness
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Kent Cullers
Date: JULY 30, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 073002np.217
Head: Space Is the Place
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Sun Ra was one of the great eccentric artists of the century. The jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader claimed to not be of this Earth -- not born of woman. He implied that he was really from the planet Saturn. He took his name, Sun Ra, from the ancient Egyptian sun god.

John Szwed has taken on the challenge of finding out the real facts of Sun Ra's life and the larger meaning of his self-created mythology. Szwed's new book is called "Space Is The Place." Szwed is professor of Anthropology, African-American Studies, Music, and American Studies at Yale.

He started the biography shortly after Sun Ra died in 1993 at the age of 79. Sun Ra's music was an amazing mix of avant garde innovation, inspired reworkings of Tin Pan Alley tunes, and revivals of early big band arrangements.

His concerts were like spectacles. Sun Ra often wore capes with planets stitched onto them and oversized headdresses. There was almost always a point in his concerts in which the band would march around the room, chanting about outer space.


SINGER: Space is the place; Space is the place
Space is the place -- yeah
Space is the place
Outer space is a pleasant place
A place that's really real
There's no limit to the things that you can do
There's no limit to the things that you can be
Your heart is free, and your life is worthwhile
Space is the place
Space is the place
Space is the place -- yeah
Space is the place

GROSS: That's Sun Ra's Space is the Place and my guest is Sun Ra's biographer, John Szwed.

John, tell us what it was like to go to a Sun Ra concert in the days you were going to his concerts?

JOHN SZWED, AUTHOR, "SPACE IS THE PLACE: THE LIVES AND TIMES OF SUN RA," MUSSER PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY, AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDIES, MUSIC, AND AMERICAN STUDIES, YALE UNIVERSITY: It's worth remembering that Sun Ra's appearance on the scene as a full-blown entertainment figure precedes the rise of mass bohemianism and light shows and psychedelic rock, and even modern stagecraft and soundcraft. So, much of what he did in a home-grown fashion was really shocking to listeners -- shocking to the point that people would flee the room.

On top of that, he would do things I think most people wouldn't care do even today, like leave the audience in the dark for five or six minutes before it starts -- getting the audience very restive and upset, and slowly raising the lights up.

Or entering the room by crawling on their stomachs. And you could only hear in the aisles, the faint sounds of bodies moving and what have you. This is very unsettling material.

Then -- what would a modal concert be? At times there were -- at Princeton we know in 1967, '68, 10 painters were on the stage painting while he was on -- and carrying their paintings around; or dancers carrying huge batiks with the lights flashing behind them; or muscle people flexing -- gilded muscle men and midgets and jugglers and fire eaters -- anything you can imagine inside of this framework which was often very much like a Wagnerian opera -- sort of a Byrite (ph) throwdown of some sort.

GROSS: If Sun Ra was just an eccentric, it probably wouldn't be very interesting to us. But the fact is that he was a really interesting composer and fascinating bandleader and produced some -- some pretty extraordinary records over the years. Let me ask you to choose a favorite to play for us.

SZWED: Well, tough question, given his output exceeds almost any other composer, particularly the recorded output well over 130 LPs-worth, and if you count the tapes and so on, maybe 1,000 items to draw on.

This -- I think "Ancient Ethiopia" to me is an important early work -- 1958, from an album called "Jazz in Silhouette," because although it has some roots in Ellington's or for that matter Fletcher Henderson -- sort of programmatic pieces -- pieces that were richly programmatic and colorful.

Sun Ra was very insidious about his color. He would slip something in. In this particular case, there's only one chord. The entire piece is built on one piece of repetition and nothing's changing but texture and rhythm. And there are precedents for this in Ravel's "Bolero," but I find this more interesting than Bolero, frankly.

GROSS: This is Sun Ra, recorded in 1958.


GROSS: Sun Ra recorded in 1958. My guest John Szwed has written a new biography of Sun Ra called Space is the Place.

Sun Ra totally recreated himself. He named himself after, what, the Egyptian sun god? And said that he wasn't human -- that he was really born on Saturn. Why do you think Egyptology had such a strong influence on him?

SZWED: The easy answer would be that this is kind of standard Afro-centrism and it's an attempt to root history of black culture in the West stronghold -- this bastion of cultural development, Egypt, and to say: at least this is ours, too; or even this was ours and not yours, and so forth.

That's the easy answer. A more complex answer is to say that Egypt was a very advanced civilization which i still hard to explain because its scientific advances still escape our grasp. The grasp we have on Egypt is a little shaky, and historians are always a little slippery with it in revising themselves.

Sun Ra certainly was aware of the arguments of Von Dyneckan (ph) and Vilikowski (ph) and others that Egypt might have been created by aliens of an advanced sort and so on.

That's not even a satisfactory answer to you, but that does provide part of the material. I think the -- this is an attempt to go to the root: to, say, the oldest God we know; the oldest alien figures, Sun Ra must have heard, was the Sun God -- the God Ra -- who was a complex figure in himself and had many names, as they say -- names that were constantly changing.

So he wanted to create a huge longevity here to see himself as somehow beyond history and this is as far as you can go on Earth. As he once said: "Ra is the oldest name for an extraterrestrial being that we have on Earth." And if you think about it, he's talking about gods, of course, which are all extraterrestrial.

GROSS: Yeah, so in Sun Ra's mind, ancient Egypt and interplanetary travel and extraterrestrials all kind of come together in some way.

SZWED: And of course Egyptian mythology encourages that -- the solar boat, you know, all kinds of paths into the sun and so forth.

GROSS: Sun Ra used to say that he wasn't born on Earth. He didn't have an Earth mother. He was from the planet Saturn. Then he told some journalists basically an alien abduction story about how aliens came, took him away to another planet which was Saturn.

SZWED: Actually, it wasn't Saturn. He doesn't say where it is. Saturn is a curious thing. I've never pinned down that he said he was Saturn. He said he had an affinity for it. That, in itself, is not so strange.

I mean, I think it's important to think of the fact that scratch any musician and you get a crypto-mystic of some sort. I mean, they -- music is founded in Pythagorean theory and so on; in a whole cult of mysticism.

And it's not very hard to get a serious musician to begin to talk in a way that seems strange. I mean, Carlen Stockhausen (ph), the German composer, says out front that he's from Sirius and makes no bones about it. Then he usually says: "but I'd rather not discuss this because most interviewers start snickering."

Sun Ra doesn't quite say that, but he does disavow an Earthly connection. It's more important that he not be from Earth -- that he not be born -- than it is to be from outer space, partly because he said, like a child, he'd figured out that if you're born, it looks like you're gonna die.

So the thing is to not be born. And he put this to people many times. If you don't want to die, abandon your birth.

GROSS: Now, as Sun Ra's biographer, your job was to, among other things, actually find out the facts of his birth and the facts of his childhood. And it's hard to do when a person who you're investigating truly believes, or truly seems to believe, that he wasn't born like other mortals are born.

You tracked down some of his family members, including his sister who remembered his birth. What did she think about the whole mythology that he had created? And his kind of denial of real human roots?

SZWED: I don't think she had been exposed to much. She'd been out of touch with him for 20 or so years, and maybe even longer. And I don't know -- she certainly sort of brought things back to ground again by saying she saw him being born through the key hole, which I thought was kind of amazing; by reminding us that as a kid his nickname was "Snookums;" and in fact his nieces and nephews still think of him as Uncle Snookums.

It's very hard to kind of mystify this. In fact, he was furious when this got into the paper and called the reporter, Kathy Kemp (ph) in Birmingham, trying to get a retraction or something on it.

I might have been upset, too, at the Snookums thing. This was just, you know, I think, you know, sibling goes off and does what they do and you know way too much about it. You worry more about do they want to borrow money from you or where are you going to stay over the weekend. You've gotta give him a place to stay.

GROSS: My guest is John Szwed, author of Space is the Place, a new biography of Sun Ra.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with John Szwed, author of a new biography of the eccentric jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader Sun Ra.

Sun Ra's band was, or at least part of his band, was almost like his cult group -- his group of cult followers. Several of the band members lived for a while with Sun Ra in a house in Germantown, which is a neighborhood in Philadelphia.

And my understanding is that Sun Ra had certain, like, basic rules of behavior that the band was supposed to follow. What was it like to live with Sun Ran, do you think? What were some of -- what was the code you were supposed to follow?

SZWED: The odd thing is to me -- I suppose -- is that one was supposed to avoid excesses, and at the same time embrace excesses. That is, you were supposed to avoid certain kinds of drinking; drugs certainly; drinking before gigs, certainly; forbidden drugs; ruled out excessive involvement with women and so on.

At the same time, they were supposed to be going, as far as they could, in expressive ways. So this is an interesting contradiction. We always associate these things -- oh, you gotta be drunk or we gotta be high -- to get there, but this is not his idea.

I think, to put this in context, it's worth remembering that in the era of big bands, the comportment demanded by most successful band directors was often not that dissimilar. That is, Duke Ellington fired people for drugs, certainly, and for drinking. He had certain exceptions, but he -- Paul Ganzolvis (ph) and so on -- but it was part of that.

And I think people put up with some things with Sun Ra they wouldn't have put up with other people. All the musicians will tell you that when they first experienced this kind of thing -- this kind of discipline, as he would put it -- they said: what is this?

But the product was so important and so fresh, that those who could do so did put up with it, and they would say once you'd experienced what he could draw out of you, you wanted more. It was, itself, a kind of an addiction to what one could achieve.

GROSS: I saw Sun Ra perform several times, and I never knew if he saw any of the humor and fun in his work, or if he took it all as some, like, larger kind of literal and serious and spiritual truth. In other words, did the stuff that strikes me as kind of witty and fun and irreverent, strike him as being literal and spiritual and all that?

SZWED: No, no, I think...

GROSS: And, yeah, one of the things I found fascinating about your book is that Sun Ra is quoted in it as saying that he wants humor in his music and he criticized the avant garde for not having a sense of humor.

SZWED: Yeah, he seems to be able to find -- he seemed to be able to find in those profound acts an element of the absurd. And was perfectly willing to laugh at himself, as he did again and again, and break out laughing even as he was being profound.

And he certainly did think that one of the problems of music in general, and pop music too, was that it was straight-faced and it was kind of silly to watch the performers get up, put on the persona, and stay right in that persona without any movement.

He enjoyed watching things break down, or even creating a breakdown, so that they would have to accommodate him. Tell you, one incident that I mention is that Danny Thompson (ph), the manager of the band and the baritone saxophonist, one night -- playing with several of the horns out front, broke a piece of his baritone saxophone and it actually sprang out into the audience, so it wasn't possible to play anymore.

But he shoves his thumb into one of the holes left when the pad popped off, so he could stop the air flow coming out and continue to play.

But then, when he got ready to stop, he couldn't get his thumb out of the hole. So he just kept playing, and then people realized he couldn't get his thumb out; the audience went wild; there was yelling and so forth.

Then afterwards, he said to one of the other musicians: "you see, he had real creativity. He was out there giving his all for the music and stuck his thumb in there like the Dutch boy and the dyke."

And he just was laughing as he was telling the story, but explaining that this was the way music should go. You should be willing to throw away everything, start from scratch.

In fact, he did disrupt musicians from playing wonderfully, professional solos by doing things like shaking things in front of their face or playing things in other keys or setting up counter-rhythms so they couldn't get away with the glib and the simplistically beautiful.

GROSS: Sun Ra denied that he was born in the conventional way of a human mother.


GROSS: And didn't -- publicly said that he didn't think he was going to die, you know. But he did die, and he died before your book was written. He died before your book was started, actually. Was Sun Ra denying until the end that he was going to die? Do you know?

SZWED: No, I -- he was very sick and he was struggling by going on these incredibly exhausting tours and trying -- you know, have to be carried on the stage and all the rest of it. Kind of thing that -- hardly any performer would do, particularly one that had to work that hard.

So he resisted up 'til the end and he insisted that the band go on. And even in the last days, just before he was returned to Birmingham where -- which he never returned -- he lectured them on the importance -- the show must go on, was the most important. It's not just a cliche. This is what it's all about. We're troubadours in the grand sense of the term, you know, serving all of humanity.

But I hit (ph) -- not saying that he wasn't also depressed. I think when NPR interviewed him at that point is -- the year that he died, he kept repeating: "first comes the glory, then the shame" -- which was one of his worries, that there's a kind of ritual that all humans are bound up in. You've got your glory and then the shame. You're dead or you're thrown out.

So he kept saying, like Joan of Arc or Mike Tyson -- curious conjunction -- but -- and he was afraid he was falling into that, too, and he was going to resist it and keep on going 'til the end.

GROSS: What interests you in Sun Ra? What do you find in his music and in his personal mythology?

SZWED: Well, that's easy, and I sensed this even before I knew too much about him, that the worst thing you can accuse him of is over-reaching -- going over the top with things. You could never once say he didn't try to go -- push hard. He pushed harder than anyone I know in the arts -- tried to draw out people.

If it meant taking an amateur musician and saying "I'm going to turn you into a musician overnight; I'm going to shove you in with all these other people" and then tell the other people "listen to what the amateur can contribute; you're missing..."

Or whether it meant saying "no matter how good you are, you'll be better when you're through here." The kind of language, and the efforts are almost forgotten in the arts. You know, most people are rather systematic now about what they're doing and this is where we're going and so forth.

This is a person who said "we're never going to be there. You just keep going." And this is, in a way, that trip -- that space trip they're on.

GROSS: John Szwed's new biography of Sun Ra is called Space is the Place. Sun Ra's band has continued to perform in the year since his death in '93. They've been playing a lot of Disney tunes. We'll close with the first Disney tune Sun Ra recorded, from the movie "Dumbo."

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: John Szwed
High: John Szwed has written a new biography of Sun Ra, the orchestra leader and piano player who claimed to be from outer space. His new book is "Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra." Szwed is Musser Professor of Anthropology, African-American Studies, Music and American Studies at Yale University.
Spec: Race Relations; Music Industry; Sun Ra; Astronautics and Space
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Space Is the Place
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue