Accessible Astronomy Sounds Great at Harvard Lab

September 18, 2019

There are new ways to study one of the oldest sciences. Allyson Bieryla, manager of the Astronomy Lab and Clay Telescope at Harvard University, has brought in and developed technology that allows people who are blind or have visual disabilities to engage in astronomy using their senses of hearing and touch.

A tactile printer in the lab uses special paper to produce raised images of star systems, similar to topographical maps, that help students learn by feeling with their hands rather than seeing. Bieryla, and Soley Hyman, a Harvard astrophysics and physics graduate, designed a device called LightSound with the assistance of Harvard science demonstrator Daniel Davis. The device is built around an Arduino, a popular open-source microcontroller board, and add-on sensors that convert light into sound.

LightSound and a later improved version were put to use during the Great American Eclipse in 2017 and another eclipse in South America this year, so more people could experience the events. The device produces sound pitch based on light intensity. The brighter the light, the higher the pitch emitted. The process of converting data to sound, or “sonification,” was pioneered by Wanda Diaz, a blind astronomer.

In an article about the astronomy lab on Harvard’s website, Hyman described the feedback received during LightSound’s employment during one of the eclipses. “It was really moving to hear some of the comments people had, people who were blind from birth describing how profound it was to use the device as the [eclipse] came into totality. It was exciting to see how powerful sonification can be and reminds me of how a symphony can move people emotionally.”

A star’s color is related to its temperature. The lab utilized that relationship to further design yet another improved device called Orchestar, which translates colored light into sound pitch. Orchestar is a valuable aid in helping more people understand stars and the differences between them.

Instructions for building LightSound and Orchestar are available on the Astronomy Accessibility Tools page on the Harvard University Astronomy Lab and Clay Telescope site.

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