From IPOs To UFOs

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It was the morning after Joe Firmage had his revelation about gravity and quantum mechanics that the alien showed up. The clock radio went off in his Los Gatos, Calif., home at 6:10, and he'd just hit snooze when the image of a dark, bearded man appeared over his bed. "Why have you bothered me?" the visitor asked, sounding rather annoyed.

"I want to travel in space," Firmage replied.

The being chuckled skeptically. "Why should you deserve that opportunity?"

"Because I'm willing to die for it."

The visitor bowed his head, and a blue sphere of light left his body and entered Joe's. "I was physically overwhelmed," Firmage recalls, "with an ecstacy and a joy that I had never even imagined possible."

Why, one might ask, is this close encounter different from any other? Well, because Firmage, 28, is an Internet whiz kid whose consulting company, USWeb, is worth about $2 billion. And because Firmage last week published a 240-page version of his magnum opus, The Truth, on his website. And finally, because his yen for space travel hasn't yet cost him his life, but it has now cost him his job.

Joe Firmage grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, with one eye fixed on his math and science textbooks and another on the stars. He launched his first start-up, Serius Corp., in 1989 and sold it to Novell for $24 million four years later. He moved to Silicon Valley in '95, co-founded USWeb and joined the Internet gravy train.

But by '97 his consuming interests in physics and astronomy had led him to the work of Miguel Alcubierre, who suggested in a 1994 paper that the space-time continuum could be modified within the framework of Einstein's theory of general relativity to allow a spaceship to travel faster than light--much like the "warp drives" of science fiction. Serious physicists don't dismiss such theories out of hand, describing them as intriguing thought experiments that could conceivably be proved true in, oh, say, 300 or 400 years.

Firmage, however, travels quite a bit farther into la-la land, insisting that he's in contact with a hush-hush federal lab that will release world-shattering experimental data in a matter of months. "This is real," he maintains. "And it's the story of the millennium."

If so, he's way ahead of the pack. When Firmage's website came to light last November, his days at USWeb were numbered. He jumped ship--he denies reports that he was pushed--in a matter of weeks. "There are two camps [at USWeb]," he laughs. "One says there's plausibility here. The other says, 'He's a nut.'"

In person he doesn't seem like a nut. Rather, he comes across as an intelligent, engaging young man with a refreshing sense of humor about his obsessive commitment to some extremely strange ideas.

At any rate, Firmage has embarked on his new career of fringe visionary with typical entrepreneurial zeal. His to-do list includes self-publishing The Truth in book form this summer, giving interviews to everyone from CNN to UFO-friendly radio host Art Bell, talking to Hollywood about various film and TV projects and founding a pair of start-ups to promote his spacy ideas and implement his vision for "sustainable" online commerce.

He seems to like his latest incarnation even better than his years as a software wizard. "When I look up in the stars," he says, "I see a far more majestic picture than most people see." And who knows? Perhaps our descendants will look back from the next millennium and marvel at just how far Joe Firmage saw.