A new book of majestic images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope brings the wonders of our universe to the fingertips of the blind.
Called "Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy," the 64-page book presents color images of planets, nebulae, stars, and galaxies. Each image is embossed with lines, bumps, and other textures. The raised patterns translate colors, shapes, and other intricate details of the cosmic objects, allowing visually impaired people to feel what they cannot see. Braille and large-print descriptions accompany each of the book's 14 photographs, making the design of this book accessible to readers of all visual abilities.
"I think this book will help the blind community to better understand the variety of objects in space," explains the book's author, Noreen Grice, operations coordinator for the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science. "This book brings amazing celestial objects, seen with the Hubble Space Telescope, to the fingertips of the visually impaired, where they can better understand the universe and their place within it."
NASA, which helped fund the book, and the book's publisher, the Joseph Henry Press, trade imprint of the National Academies Press (publisher for the National Academy of Sciences), will publicly release "Touch the Universe" at 1 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 21, at press events at both the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, and at DePaul University in Chicago.
"Touch the Universe" takes the reader on a cosmic journey, beginning with an image of the Hubble Space Telescope orbiting Earth and then traveling outward into the universe, showing objects such as Jupiter and the Ring Nebula. The journey ends with the Hubble Deep Field North, an image revealing thousands of galaxies billions of light-years away. The book costs $35. Orders can be placed online at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10307.html or by calling 1-888-624-8373.
Grice collaborated with Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an astronomer at DePaul University in Chicago, to develop the book with a $10,000 Hubble Space Telescope grant for educational outreach. Beck-Winchatz had received the grant from a program administered by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
The DePaul astronomer got the idea for the book while browsing through a museum gift shop where he saw Grice's original book, "Touch the Stars," a 1990 astronomy book containing tactile line drawings of objects such as constellations, planets, and galaxies.
"I thought that Noreen's book 'Touch the Stars' was a wonderful idea, especially because astronomy is thought of as a visual science," Beck-Winchatz explains. "At the same time, when I saw the book and her sketches, I thought there was so much more we could do. I thought it would be intriguing to create similar tactile pictures based on real Hubble Space Telescope images."
He contacted Grice about making the Hubble Space Telescope photographs accessible to the blind. She was eager to take up the challenge. For 18 years, Grice had been making astronomical pictures accessible to the blind. Her involvement with the blind community began when visitors from the Perkins School for the Blind arrived for a show at the Charles Hayden Planetarium in Boston.
"I didn't know what to do," Grice recalls. "I hadn't thought that blind people would be interested in astronomy. After the show I asked them how they enjoyed the astronomy program and they said, 'It stunk.' After that I thought, 'What went wrong? Why did they have such a negative experience? I realized that the planetarium's celestial images were not accessible to people who could not see them and decided to do something about it."
Working in the kitchen of her home, Grice made prototypes of the Hubble images for "Touch the Universe" by tracing them on plastic sheets, using tools to create raised details. Grice not only tried to represent the outlines of stars, planets, and galaxies, she also used consistent patterns to denote color and matter. Raised lines, for example, represent blue. Rings are illustrated with dotted lines, and wavy ones signify gas currents.
She sent the prototypes to students at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs, who evaluated each image for clarity and provided suggestions for improvement. Grice then traced the final illustrations onto metal plates and placed them in a heat vacuum machine to create multiple copies of molded plastic pages. The pages became the first prototypes of her book.
Benning Wentworth III, a science teacher at the Colorado school who arranged for the book's evaluation, says the biggest challenge was making the complex Hubble images simple enough to understand by touch. "The fingers of a blind person must move in order to transmit information to the brain," Wentworth explains. "Where a sighted person takes a look at an image as a whole and then breaks it down into its parts, the blind person must take the parts and make it into a whole."
The key ingredient in creating this unique book was the partnership between a teacher, a scientist, and a planetarium educator.
"I hope that the project's success will inspire others to become creative, because it is very gratifying for scientists to use part of their research grant for an education project, whether it is for the blind community or for middle schools," Beck-Winchatz says. "There are 10 million visually impaired people in the United States. I am thrilled that these amazing resources for studying the universe are now available to them."
The finished product has certainly delighted Wentworth's students. "What is unique about this book is that it is taking actual photographs and bringing them to life for blind students," he says.
NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/358-1547; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
(Phone: 301/286-8982; E-mail: email@example.com)
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
(Phone: 410/338-4493; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Joseph Henry Press/National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/334-1902; E-mail: email@example.com)
Roxanne L. Brown
DePaul University, Chicago, IL
(Phone: 312/362-8623; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)