When I received my Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1980, I was the world's first totally blind physicist and astronomer. Today, I am Director of Research and Development at the SETI Institute. I have received NASA's Medal for Excellence in Engineering, and met the Clintons in the Rose Garden. I was the inspiration for the character of the blind astronomer, Kent, in the movie Contact -- even though I couldn't act well enough to play myself. Without braille, such a career would have been virtually unthinkable. Before I could read, my father described the world and the larger universe beyond. His qualitative descriptions were so compelling that they inspired a lifelong love of science. But scientific success requires much more than desire and intuition. It demands a set of precision tools.
"Because braille can now represent mathematics and diagrams, not only the world but also the universe is open to blind people."
The written word is the foremost tool for clear thinking and communication. Using braille, I perform complex calculations -- sometimes by programming computers - that develop new methods of signal processing. Using a braille computer to produce printed equations, I can communicate with my sighted colleagues. The instruments and computational tools to extend my senses deep into the universe have existed for only about twenty years. I use these tools to search for intelligent radio signals, which may well originate from technical civilizations orbiting distant stars. Surely, among the billions of hospitable stars in our galaxy, technologies like ours exist. Because braille can now represent mathematics and diagrams, not only the world but also the universe is open to blind people.