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Joe Firmage sheds E.T. aura for science site

From a position far in the "X-Files" fringes of the scientific world, Silicon Valley's most controversial E.T.-hunter, Joe Firmage, is climbing back into the mainstream.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
From a position far in the "X-Files" fringes of the scientific world, Silicon Valley's most controversial E.T.-hunter, Joe Firmage, is climbing back into the mainstream.

For several months, Firmage and Carl Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, have been working on the early stages of an ambitious science-focused media project, hoping to re-create and expand on the success of Sagan's "Cosmos" TV show both online and in film.

The pair has attracted more than $23 million in funding led by Softbank Venture Capital, outstripping many of the hottest Net start-ups.

Last week, the first tangible signs of the venture, code-named "Project Voyager," materialized when the founders said the project would work with the Sagan-founded Planetary Society. As a part of that deal, the budding media organization will revitalize the SETI@Home project, which has tapped tens of thousands of volunteers to donate idle computer time to finding evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Later in the year, Voyager is slated to settle on a name and announce media distribution deals that its founders say will bring it into the big time, both online and off.

In the meantime, the venture's story focuses much more on the odd-couple relationship between Druyan, a highly regarded professional skeptic, and Firmage, who made headlines around the world with his unconventional opinions last year.

Caution to the wind?
Firmage achieved something beyond ordinary dot-com millionaire notoriety in 1998 when he went public with his beliefs that the earth has been visited by extraterrestrials and that science is on the verge of breakthroughs that would enable space travel.

Although Silicon Valley has long been home to iconoclasts and freethinkers, Firmage's well-publicized opinions sent ripples of worry through Wall Street, which was then closely scrutinizing the merger of Firmage's USWeb with rival consulting house CKS. A suddenly controversial figure, he stepped down from his position as the company's chief strategist not long after the merger to focus on other projects.

At least one of those projects has been fairly conventional, at least by Silicon Valley standards. IntendChange, which Firmage started with USWeb co-founder Toby Corey, was designed to help Web start-ups develop business plans and learn the lingo of venture capitalists.

But Firmage continued work on his book, "The Truth," much of which he published online and which outlines his more unconventional beliefs. He also has helped support scientific research in areas that interest him.

He doesn't quickly bring up these efforts in interviews today, but Firmage is still pressing hard to find solid, scientific evidence to back his beliefs, well aware that the ideas remain controversial.

"It's moving along, but it's not like the Internet. There's no way you can incubate physics faster than nature lets you," he said. "The type of work we're doing is about a fundamental physics discovery, like (the invention of semiconductors). That's why it's so controversial."

Druyan, by contrast, has almost precisely the opposite reputation in scientific circles. Along with Sagan, she co-wrote and helped produce the popular "Cosmos" TV show. She also served as secretary of the Federation of American Scientists for a decade and worked on other media projects.

The duo met nearly two years ago after Firmage introduced himself to Druyan with an email. He quickly won a high place in her respect by instantly committing $1 million to a children's hospital project in the Bronx that Druyan was spearheading, she said.

"Joe really cares about this planet," Druyan said. "I have found him to be very reasonable. We talk constantly, and we have huge areas of agreement and affinity."

But even with this promising beginning, it took at least another year for the two to see eye-to-eye on Project Voyager.

Discovery Channel on steroids
When news of Druyan's venture with Firmage first started leaking out, she was criticized in some scientific circles for linking hands with such a controversial figure.

The mild tone of censure still angers her, and she likens it to the kind of thought control that open-minded scientific experimentation is meant to counteract.

Nevertheless, she's protected herself against possible tainting of her hard-won reputation.

"Joe has a different set of ideas and believes a set of things that I don't believe," she said. "But we have a very clear legal arrangement that will let traditional scientific methodology resolve any of our disputes."

And if there are any questions about the science in Project Voyager's products, that legal language lets her walk away, she notes.

The project itself is ambitious, linking Druyan's Cosmos Studios with a planned Net portal dedicated to science-focused entertainment.

Media projects that have made money online have been almost as rare as verified E.T. sightings, but the founders note that Cosmos Studios was always profitable and that there is a huge audience around the world for smart, scientifically credible entertainment. Firmage calls the venture "the Discovery Channel with 25 more IQ points" and says it aims to create "scientific works of art."

In the process, Firmage is winning respect even from those in the scientific community who firmly disagree with his ideas.

"(His views on extraterrestrials) are not our views," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. "But that area has been dominated by anecdotes and pseudoscience in the past. I think Joe would like to see it evolve into something that gets more scientific attention."

The success of Project Voyager is still up in the air, as it struggles with other media ventures to find its place in the converging area of new and old media. But Firmage's work has given him a foothold in a world that may attract him even more than the Silicon Valley that gave him his wealth.

"I've worked with a lot of people whose conventional religious views are much harder to credit than are Joe's views," Druyan said, defending her partner. "Let's not shun people who disagree with us."