Richard Factor is the kind of friend I always spoke to by telephone, usually about once a year, usually around the Holidays. Our annual chats fit something of a formula: How've you been? What are you doing? What do you want to be when you grow up? Any new toys? Any new wives? (This latter question directed toward me, as Richard has never made the same mistake once.)
Our mutual interests in ham radio and aviation held us together, though we first met when I was a grad student at Berkeley, and his electronics company was considering licensing my patent for BiDCAS, an airborne anti-collision radar system that never got off the ground. Orville Greene, Richard's patent attorney, terminated those negotiations, and because it was a logical business decision, it never intruded on our friendship. Just over seven years ago, on the week of Christmas, 1994, Richard and I had one of our formula phone calls. Only, this time, there was a new wrinkle. "Say," asked Richard after the usual pleasantries had been exchanged, "what do you know about SETI?"
We had never discussed it before, but here was a topic close to my heart, and just one more interest that Richard and I apparently held in common. I had been infected with the SETI virus back at Berkeley (if you check the historical record, you will find that nearly every major player in the field had some connection with the University of California over the years, either as a faculty member, student, or researcher). One of my thesis professors had been Jack Welch, who also taught (and, much later, married) Jill Tarter, the prominent SETI scientist. Kent Cullers was a ham radio buddy. I had met, dined with and studied under Barney Oliver, heard Frank Drake lecture, and corresponded with John Kraus, prominent SETIzens all. And I had read from cover to cover everything I could devour on the subject, including the Project Cyclops report and NASA's SP-419, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
So, apparently, had Richard. We chatted about SETI history for over an hour, lamenting Congress having cancelled the NASA SETI program, expressing optimism about the job the SETI Institute was doing in privatizing the search, and sharing our excitement over the Project Phoenix observing run, just about to commence in Australia. Richard asked if I had ever considered it possible for radio amateurs to do credible SETI, and I told him about the five-meter dish I had built in my back yard in the late 'seventies, and how, with it, I had dabbled in just that.
As we talked animatedly about our common interest, I had no idea whatever that I was participating in a job interview. Eventually, Richard dropped the bombshell. "Orville and I have started a SETI nonprofit," he finally got around to stating. "How'd you like to run it?"
My heart raced, and my mind reeled. This seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime! But, I had other obligations. I was an engineering professor then. The new semester was just about to begin, and I was under contract to my college. I agreed to lend a hand in my spare time, until the semester ended in May, but Richard pressed me to commit to a longer tenure. As it happens, I was about to become eligible for a one-year's sabbatical leave, and my college was supportive. So it was that in May of 1995, I became The SETI League's first and only fulltime employee.
By the end of my sabbatical, Richard and I had an organizational structure, and a handful of members, and the basic blueprint for Project Argus. But much work remained. He and Orville pressed me to stay on for another year. I asked the President of the college for an extension to my sabbatical. Predictably, he refused. Since The SETI League now had enough funding on hand to match my teaching salary, I then requested a one-year personal leave of absence, without pay. With the support and encouragement of my colleagues, that was granted.
Next thing I knew, I had blinked, and another year had passed. Now we had several hundred members, and a dozen stations on the air! It was beginning to look as though, just maybe, meaningful amateur SETI science was indeed possible. But I was at a critical crossroads. I was wanted back in the classroom. The college was not about to extend my leave. At 51, I was too young (and, with five sons still at home, too impoverished) to retire. And nobody in his right mind gives up a tenured Full Professorship (a cushy job for life, backed by the taxing authority of the State) to pursue fringe science on soft money. The party, it began to appear, was over.
Richard and Orville put their heads (and their purses) together, and came up with a tempting package. Although they could not offer me tenure, they guaranteed my teaching salary and fringe benefits for another five years. I agonized over the decision, and talked it over with my wife. Muriel understood my reluctance to burn the bridge back to academia; I had been teaching for three decades, and feared giving it up.
"But you're not really giving up teaching," she reassured me. "You're just getting a much larger classroom - and much better students. Besides, why are you asking me? You've already made up your mind."
Muriel was right, of course, on both counts. She always is.
That was nearly five years ago. The SETI League's seed money lasted quite a while, but now we must seek further funding. Meanwhile, I'm still here. And, I expect, I will be, until they drag me away kicking and screaming. For I have finally decided just what it is I want to be when I grow up.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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