New NASA Book Helps Blind People "See" Cosmos

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
December 2, 2002
The Hubble Space Telescope has been bringing images of distant galaxies and neighboring planets into view since 1990—but only for those who can see. Now, a new book by NASA is helping to make stargazers out of the visually impaired.

Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy presents Braille text and photographs of some of the universe's most dramatic celestial features.

Images of newborn stars in the Eagle nebula, for example, become "visible" to the fingertips by embossing the most dominant features on a thick paper. Raised lines follow the object's shape, and various textures—dots, parallel lines, squiggles, and curves—identify planets, gas clouds, stars and galaxies.

Another photo called "The Hubble Deep Field" reveals the most detailed view of a miniscule slice of the cosmos with about 1,500 galaxies, some of which date back to the beginning of the universe. Some of these galaxies are four billion times fainter than objects seen by the human eye—many have never been seen by even the largest telescopes. Two other shots show the gaudy Ring and Hourglass Nebulae.

"The book showed me galaxies that are far away and what they look like through a telescope," said Terry Garrett, a freshman at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, in Colorado Springs. "I never knew that we could take pictures of things that were that far away," said Garrett, who was one of 22 students to evaluate the book during development.

Connecting the Senses to the Cosmos

Illustrations comparing the sizes of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus were also insightful. "This was something that I couldn't grasp [before]," said Garrett, who aspires to be the first blind person in space. "This book has made me want to pursue this goal even more."

"When I touch images of galaxies, my mind goes out there," said Kent Cullers, physicist and director of research and development at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, based in Mountain View, California. "I've known about the great distance of these galaxies in an intellectual way, but when I touched the images I felt this in an emotional way," said Cullers, who has been blind since birth.

"As I touch the images I 'see' the universe out there and it 'looks' like the universe nearby. You can't beat a picture to convince you of that," said Cullers, who has been listening to the universe, via computers, for more than 20 years.

"When I first heard the noise of the universe, it thrilled me because it connected my senses to the cosmos," says Cullers. "It caused a mental shift. It showed me that those things are real." Cullers said the new book has a similar impact.

Author Noreen Grice collaborated with Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an astronomer at DePaul University in Chicago, to develop the book using a U.S. $10,000 Hubble Space Telescope grant for educational outreach.

Less is More

Grice's interest in Braille books began in 1984, when she worked part-time at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at Boston's Museum of Science. During one of her shifts, a group of students from the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, visited the planetarium but left disappointed.

"They said, the planetarium show stunk," said Grice, now a full-time operations coordinator for the planetarium. "That really stuck with me."

Grice soon visited the library at the Perkins School and found it filled with Braille books. Isaac Asimov's works packed the astronomy section but carried few Braille-specific raised illustrations, due to their high production costs.

"That's when I thought that there needs to be a Braille book on astronomy," said Grice. In 1990 she published a book called Touch the Stars, a general astronomy book on constellations, galaxies, and planets.

Beck-Winchatz, the DePaul University astronomer, later saw the book and was inspired to produce tactile pictures based on Hubble images. Grice and Beck-Winchatz worked together to apply the same approach to Hubble images.

To test the images the pair enlisted the help of Benning Wentworth, III, a science teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, who developed a tactile astronomy course called "Where Fingers Meet the Stars and Beyond." Wentworth arranged for his students to evaluate the images.

"It was an ongoing process of tweaking the feel of what you and I see," said Wentworth. Unlike sighted people, blind people "look" at parts individually to piece together the whole picture. "It's like constructing a jigsaw puzzle without a picture."

Too many bumps or raised lines, like too many pieces, can create confusion. When it comes to creating tactile images, less is more, said Wentworth. "When they could feel the picture, they experienced clarity."

One of the most powerful images, according to Wentworth, was of a spiral galaxy, similar to our own. Students were able to feel their way out on the spiral arm, to an analogous point to Earth's position in the Milky Way. Wenthworth said many students realized "we are really out in the boonies."

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