New NASA Book Helps Blind People "See" Cosmos

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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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