The Egyptian death mask was inconceivably ornate, so intricate that one could study it for hours and still find new details. But because the mask was under glass, a blind person could not touch it, could not run her fingers across the beads and engravings and smooth crevasses of the face. She could only raise her fingers to the braille plaque and read: Egyptian death mask.
That troubled astrophysicist Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter. But what troubled him more was the realization that his own recently installed exhibit — a visually striking solar wall — was even less accessible. He began brainstorming how he could share his love of science with the blind and visually impaired community, and joined the “Tactile Sun” project, which creates tangible images of the sun using 3D printers.
Some months later, he visited his congenitally blind friend Chancey Fleet at work at the New York Public Library’s Andrew Heiskell Talking Book and Braille Library, and gifted her a braille book about the August 21, 2017 “Great American Eclipse.” Winter was surprised when Fleet finished the book and admitted she still didn’t entirely understand an eclipse. As someone who had never seen light, or shadows, or even a map of the United States, she was missing the visual concepts most of us unthinkingly use to understand such events.
So Winter shifted gears, and told an anecdote of the “false dawn chorus,” an eclipse phenomenon in which light-sensitive creatures such as crickets become confused when the moon blocks out the sun. When sunlight re-emerges, the creatures believe it to be dawn, and initiate their morning chirping. Fleet not only understood, but got excited, and Winter realized that soundscapes were the key to unlocking the eclipse for the blind and visually impaired community.
Winter got started immediately on the Eclipse Soundscapes Project. “Not only would it be a way to engage the visually impaired community in a way that’s accessible, a way they can relate to along with their sighted peers, but there might also be some science as well,” Winter said.
The Eclipse Soundscapes app, which will be released at the beginning of August, will include illustrated audio descriptions of the eclipse in real time, recordings of the changing environmental sounds during the eclipse, and an interactive “rumble map” app that will allow users to visualize the eclipse through touch. You can read more about it on our About the Project Page.
So why is Winter, a sighted person, so determined to bring astrophysics to the visually impaired community? “Science only works if it’s for everybody,” he said. “I really hope we build tools that inspire and make possible the tools of the future. There’s a saying: ‘I can only see further because I’m on the shoulders of giants.’ Scientists know that their work is made possible by those who came before, and will be advanced by those who come after. We’re all part of chain. But I hope to be a useful link in building the future.”