Touch the Invisible Sky, uses raised lines and textures to help blind people understand astronomy. The cover, shown above, features a composite image of a remnant of a supernova, overlaid with straight and curved lines.
The book, Touch the Invisible Sky, uses raised lines and textures to help blind people understand astronomy. The cover, shown above, features a composite image of Kepler's Supernova Remnant, using images from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Ozone Publshing/NASA
Telescopes have captured astonishing images of far-away galaxies and other cosmic mysteries. Now, a new book called Touch the Invisible Sky is helping everyone appreciate those pictures, even people who can't see.
This isn't the first book written by Noreen Grice, an astronomer who works at the Museum of Science in Boston. Back in 1984, Grice was a 21-year-old studying astronomy at Boston University. She had a job at the planetarium, and one Saturday, a group of blind people came to the show.
"I didn't know what to do because I didn't know anyone who was blind," says Grice. Her manager told her to just help the people to their seats.
After the show was over, Grice went up to the group.
"I said, 'So how did you like the show?' And there was an uncomfortable pause," she recalls. "And then they said, 'This stunk' and walked away. And that left me speechless because I thought the planetarium was, like, the best place in the world."
The next day, Grice took a bus to a nearby school for the blind. She found its library and looked for astronomy books. They were thick books, printed in Braille.
"But something was missing. I said, 'Where are the pictures? Are there any pictures in these books?'"
The librarian explained that it's expensive to translate an image into raised lines and textures that a person can feel with their fingers, so textured images are uncommon in books for the blind. Grice hated the idea that blind people weren't getting the same kind of cool astronomy books she loved as a kid.
"I had grown up in the housing projects outside Boston," says Grice. "People would say, 'you're a project kid, you're not welcome here.' I understood what it meant to be labeled. And I didn't really know how to make astronomy accessible. But I thought, 'I'll try.'"
Her first book, Touch the Stars, came out in 1990. She used a Braille printer to trace out the constellations. Her next book, Touch the Universe, traced out photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Grice created that one using thin plastic sheets.
"Basically, I was etching them by hand, in my kitchen," she says. "Some were like, really difficult. When you have diffuse gas that you can hardly see, it is very difficult to apply a texture to it."
Touch the Invisible Sky, her latest book, was written with two co-authors. It's beautiful, designed to be read by both blind people and sighted people.
The book has images taken by telescopes that detect things like radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays — the wavelengths of light that no one can see with the naked eye.
"I think we all have the same thing in common with this book," says Grice. "No human can see these other wavelengths so we're all approaching it together."
There's a real need for more books like this one, says Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.
"Most people think that astronomy is the study of light, and they think therefore that blind people can't do it and would not be interested," he says. "Blind people can do it, and we find it fascinating."
Maurer loved the science textbooks his mom read to him when he was going to school. But a popular science book he could read by himself — there was nothing like that.
"There still are not enough books," he says, explaining that exciting science books with pictures and graphics are a rarity for blind people.
That's one reason why Chelsea Cook, a high school student in Newport News, Va., got her family to drive four hours to Baltimore for the new book's unveiling. She says Grice's astronomy books are "really interesting, you know, the visuals are easy to read, and they're just cool to look at."
Cook says she has enough vision to see a full moon, but not stars. Still, she wants to study astrochemistry and astrophysics. And she's fascinated by the idea of space exploration.
Her ultimate career goal? To become the first "blind astronaut." It will be "a lot to work toward," she says, "but I think it's possible."