New astronomy book invites the blind to aim for the stars

Picturing space without sight

January 16, 2008|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

Courtney Despeaux picked up an object shrouded in bubble wrap at the National Federation of the Blind headquarters yesterday and tried to decipher the contents with a few quick squeezes.

She couldn't. The blind junior from Severna Park High School found out she was holding a plastic dinosaur only after astrophysicist Simon Steel stripped off the packaging.

As does bubble wrap to its contents, the Earth's atmosphere obscures distant stars and galaxies, the scientist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explained. That's what makes space telescopes critical for exploring the heavens.

It was a lesson that Despeaux, 16, is unlikely to forget. "Things are blurrier from the ground than when you can look at them out in space," she said.

Such lessons are the focus of an unusual, NASA-funded book designed to give the blind and the sighted a better idea of the size, shape and composition of some of the most brilliant objects ever detected in space.

Touch the Invisible Sky describes, in Braille and printed text, some of the exploding stars and constellations detected by the Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes. There also are some images from the group of radio telescopes that make up the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

Touching the stars

The book includes 28 color images embossed with raised lines, confetti-like dots and concentric patterns to give blind readers some idea of what the Crab Nebula and the Whirlpool galaxy are made of.

The authors are Steel, NASA astronomer Doris Daou and Noreen Grice, an astronomer and operations coordinator at the Boston Museum of Science planetarium.

The 60-page volume cost NASA $125,000 to produce and will retail for about $75 in museums, science centers, NASA facilities and schools for the blind. It also will be available on the publisher's Web site: www.ozonepubli shing.net.

The initial run was 2,000 copies, but there may be additional printings if the book sells well, said Lilia Molina, president of Ozone Tactile Publishing.

The point is to encourage blind students to study astronomy, think about careers in science and stretch their imaginations so they are more likely to pursue fields they might otherwise think are closed to them, said Mark A. Riccobono, executive director of the blind federation's Jernigan Institute, a research and training center.

"Even if they don't go into astronomy, they may begin to see that it's a possibility and, by extension, they begin to see other possibilities," Riccobono said.

The effort is Grice's third NASA-sponsored book for the blind. She published a book of Hubble photographs in 2002 and a book of solar images, with help from researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in 2005.

Unlike earlier efforts, Touch the Invisible Sky uses images from a range of telescopes that detect light in different wavelengths and shows how the computer-generated images they create can vary from one telescope to the next.

1 object, 3 viewpoints

A visible-light image of the Kepler supernova, which was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, appears as a series of tiny green islands, while infrared light from the Spitzer shows it as a half-moon-shaped red mass. X-ray images from Chandra show the same supernova as a full circle of blue emissions.

"The focus of the book is really things that nobody can see anyway," Steel said.

Astronomers these days increasingly depend on skills such as being able to develop algorithms and computer code that will discern patterns in the electromagnetic spectrum - most of which is invisible, experts say.

One often-cited role model is Kent Cullers, a blind physicist portrayed in the Jodie Foster movie Contact who developed algorithms used to look for signs of extraterrestrial life among cosmic radio waves.

"It's something that no one needs their eyes to do," Steel said.

A trend toward tactile

The book also is part of a trend toward making science more accessible to the blind and using tactile material, along with Braille, as a selling point, experts say.

"There is more demand for tactile material in general," said Karen Poppe, tactile graphics project leader for the American Printing House for the Blind, one of the world's largest publishers of Braille materials. "Kids want to gravitate toward the tactile because those are just more interesting at first."

The book was designed with input from science classes at the Colorado School for the Blind. "I asked them what would it be like if they just picked up a book and, with no one talking to them, they had to decipher what the graphic was," said Ben Wentworth, the retired Colorado science teacher whose blind students reviewed Grice's work.

The book is written at a high school level and could be used in an introductory college astronomy course, Grice said.

She began promoting astronomy among blind students in 1984 when she was a student at Boston University, working part time at the Charles Hayden Planetarium. When a group of blind students complained about the planetarium show, she found few astronomy materials were available to the blind.

"I think everyone should be able to study astronomy," she said.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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