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Friday, November 22, 2002

Ow! That Star's Hot!

Now this is a cool idea: an astronomy book for the blind. I read about it in the Houston Chronicle today. (That article's by Michael Stroh, from the Baltimore Sun, in case the link rots and you have to go googling for it.)

The book's by Noreen Grice, who got the idea when some blind students told her "astronomy stinks" after a planetarium show. (Now who decided that would be a good field trip for blind students?) So she did a first book, Touch the Stars, which was mostly about the solar system. This new one contains touch-coded pictures of Hubble images.

This site has photos of blind kids test-driving the concept. Here's the book in the National Academies Press catalog (NAP publishes it), but the images don't give a very good idea of what the pictures might feel like.

But this does. Click on "Individual Images" (at the bottom) and it will lead you to a texture-coded picture of the Ring Nebula. And this NASA-Goddard page shows six images from the book (Image 2). It also describes how Grice made the prototype pages in her kitchen. Making the original prototypes doesn't sound so hard, but making copies of them sounds complicated.

I wonder whether this kind of coding really gives people a good idea of the objects. If I were doing it, I'd make the various gases silky or fuzzy or whatever, rather than relying on just dots or lines. But that would probably make the book really expensive. This is a really good start, until fuzzy books come along.

(This ABC story talks about the few astronomy resources for the blind.)

Touch the Universe has a preface written by Kent Cullers, probably the world's only blind astronomer. Cullers is a radio astronomer, which is not quite as dependent upon visualizations as optical astronomy. Though I still don't know how he would manage to do data reduction (hmmm...I can only find one paper for him, on the design of this NASA mission, though he isn't on the list of "team members" now. So I'm not sure what exactly he does.)

I was at a large dinner once, at which Cullers was also present. My friends noticed him (he was behind me) and I took very great pains to catch a glimpse of him while pretending not to be looking. I didn't want him to catch me gawking, see. Smooooth, that's me.