Accessibility in Astronomy

In 2019, I was introduced to a community of astronomers who are representing data with sound. This is called sonification. I wrote about a software program developed by the Space Science Telescope Institute that adds an audio component to visual graphs in this post titled Hearing the Light.

In spring 2020 with shelter in place orders in effect, I was invited to join a series of virtual meetings about accessibility in astronomy and other scientific fields. Participants from around the world shared examples of their work in sonification. Many audio files were played, and links to websites were shared in the chat. Along the way, I developed professional relationships with a community that values multisensory learning using the senses of touch and hearing in addition to the traditionally-accepted visual methods for explaining concepts in astronomy and other scientific fields.

Access barriers occur in astronomy, and in other scientific fields because the subject matter is taught visually, and most educators are unaware of tactile or audio methods to explain them.

In 2021, I spoke on a panel about improving accessibility in astronomy. A written version of our discussion has been accepted for publication as a Q&A article in Nature Astronomy.

The list of people interviewed was:

•            Nicolas Bonne (University of Portsmouth). He is the project lead for the Tactile Universe.

•            Cheryl Fogle-Hatch (Museum Senses)

•            Garry Foran (Swinburne University of Technology)

•            Enrique Perez Montero (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía)

My fellow panelists are astronomers, and they discussed the idea that astronomy is a visual science. People think of awe-inspiring images when they think of astronomy.

Nic Bonne said that modern astronomy is digital. Instruments collect light from telescopes and record it digitally. We agreed that digital data can be represented with sonification just as it is shown visually on graphs that are considered as the default method.

Other topics of discussion included:

•            The need for greater acceptance of accessible methods in astronomy.

•            Creating tactile models.

•            Using sonification to explore data with sound.

•            Ensuring that software programs are accessible to people who are blind.

The article is available for download from a repository used by researchers in astronomy and physics called arXiv.

Q&A: Accessibility in Astronomy for the Visually Impaired

It was featured on the Astrobites blog on July 17, 2022.

Making astronomy accessible for blind and visually impaired astronomers

The message of our interviews was that “sharing data in different ways opens access to everyone.” In that spirit, I end this post by sharing a multi-sensory planetarium show.

Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System

“Unlike traditional planetarium shows the soundtrack takes the lead role. Each of the objects in space are represented with sounds as well as being presented with the incredible 4K resolution visuals, The audience listen to the stars appear and hear the planets orbit around their heads. This means that this show is an immersive experience that can be enjoyed irrespective of level of vision.”

The show uses images from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Play the Audio Universe Tour.

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