'Invisible Sky' Presents NASA Images in Braille

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A new book in Braille makes images from NASA space telescopes accessible to people with limited vision. Doris Daou, co-author of Touch the Invisible Sky discusses the project and the challenges of presenting space images through the sense of touch.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

You know, pictures are an important part of astronomy. When we look at the - some of those wonderful pictures that we see coming from the Hubble Space Telescope or more probes that are out there. We're going to be talking a little bit later about a probe that is switching around at the planet Mercury and sending back some gorgeous photos from there.

You know, we talk about these photos as if everybody can see them. But we forget that there are people who are visually impaired and have not been able to enjoy these terrific photos of the cosmos until now.

Because joining me now is Doris Daou, she's an astronomer at NASA's headquarter in Washington and is one of the co-authors of a new book that was unveiled this week entitled, "Touch the Invisible Sky." And as you might guess from the title, the book is in Braille, including specially textured pictures that try to translate what most of us can see into tactile sensations for the visually impaired.

Welcome to the program, Ms. Daou.

Ms. DORIS DAOU (Astronomer, NASA; Co-author, "Touch the Invisible Sky"): Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Where did you get the idea for this book?

Ms. DAOU: Well, there have been a couple of books that NASA has been involved in before. The first one is "Touch the Universe" with the Hubble pictures and the second was "Touch the Sun." This particular one that came from a discussion that I had with one of the scientists, Dr. Mark Lacey, at the Spitzer Science Center. And he had - just had some X-ray observations. And the Spitzer Science Center is an infrared science center. So, I wanted to have his work as part of this book. But also, you know, part of the basics of astronomy is light, so every object in the universe emits light. And understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum has always been at the basis of understanding the universe. So, talking with him about his work and the infrared and X-ray, and also wanting to do a book to really portray the difference, the importance of observing objects in every single wavelength, and being a great admirer of Noreen Grice's work with…

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. DAOU: …the other tactile book, I really thought that this would be the perfect fit to have a third one in the series, that would be, hopefully, helpful, not only for our primary audience, the blind and visually impaired, but also for everybody to understand the importance of observing object in every wavelengths and what is the difference and the information that is given by each one of these wavelengths.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah because, as you say, there are so many wavelengths that we don't see that have useful information in them…

Ms. DAOU: Exactly.

FLATOW: …that scientists use.

1-800-989-8255.

Talking with Doris Daou about her new book, "Touch the Invisible Sky."

But how do you decide how to make, you know, the "Invisible Sky" palpable when you touch it? What are we touching exactly?

Ms. DAOU: Well, actually, this is a very long process. And obviously, you need to have the appropriate experts for that. My input for this book was mostly the scientific content. And that's why I worked with Noreen Grice who was the author of the two other Braille books. And we also worked with the Colorado School for the Blind. We had a school - classroom, they are with their teacher, then helping us and review all of the images. I mean, in a sense, we started with about a hundred images…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DAOU: …and we took - we transformed them into tactile with the help of Noreen. But we also interacted very much with the Colorado School of the Blind to see which ones were able to portray and engage those students, but also give them the message that we're trying to present and to provide with this book.

So, it's a long process, but it's an important process because, eventually, we want to make sure that you're not, in a sense, it's like not just giving a fire hose of information. You know, you learn sometimes that when you transferd an image from its visual look to a tactile look, sometimes, as Noreen likes to say, sometimes less is more, you know? You want…

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. DAOU: …to make sure - it's a very delicate process, in a sense.

FLATOW: Do you have - did you have trouble weeding out which of the cosmos parts you would be including in the book and leaving some out?

Ms. DAOU: The only trouble was, about the end, we actually were - we had more pictures that we can put in one book.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. DAOU: So, it was difficult to choose, you know? As everybody says, you know, which one of your children would you choose? In a sense, it was difficult to choose. But when we started to think, we wanted to have -portray images and object where people can actually relate to. And that's why we started with the sun. Everybody can relate to the sun. I mean, we feel it…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. DAOU: …we sometimes struggle because of it, and we went from there, and the sun being a star, then we went to the next thing, how do - how are stars born and how do they die. And that's why you see in the book, we have supernova and such. And then, our sun is in a galaxy, so we decided to go a step further and show a couple of galaxies in the book.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255.

Ralph(ph) in San Jose. Hi, Ralph.

RALPH (Caller): Hi. I actually work at a solar and astrophysics lab and we take many, many - pictures of the sun all the time. And I'm interested in how she goes about making tactile versions of the images.

FLATOW: Yeah. Give us some idea of what we'd see. You have a clear acrylic overlay that goes on top of the pages in Braille and things. Describe for us how that was.

Ms. DAOU: Yes, precisely. What we've done, for example for the sun, we took four different images: one in the visible, one in the radio, one in ultraviolet, and one in X-ray.

Ms. DAOU: And we started - it is a clear acrylic overlay. So, when we took the image of the visible, for example, obviously, you have this circle in each one of them that's overlaid to tell you where are the boundaries of the sun. But in the visible, obviously, the only thing that we saw were the spots. So, what we've done is there are - if you look at eight o'clock, nine o'clock and three o'clock in that image, you can feel the sun spot will be kind of bumps that cover exactly the area where those sun spots are.

RALPH: We have…

Ms. DAOU: You know, one, for example that is totally different is the image that we chose for the X-ray. You know, with the X-ray, we had obviously an overlay, the same circle, but then you had the overlay that shows the corona. And that overlay, we sparkled it with small like sandy feel, it feels like you're touching sand over all the corona. And then, obviously, again at eight o'clock, at nine o'clock and three o'clock, you have hotter areas there, and those you can see them, you can feel them as big blobs under your finger.

RALPH: Right.

FLATOW: Now, if you got something…

RALPH: Did you try spotting any kind of curl(ph) on the loops or anything? We have lots of beautiful EUV images of the sun.

Ms. DAOU: Yeah. Yes, indeed. So, the picture of the ultraviolet, if you look at it, you will see those loops, and the loops will feel. You still feel the corona, which is the sandy spot, and then those loops will be arcs around, you know, that you can feel with the acrylic.

FLATOW: Do you have a copyright or a patent on this method of doing it?

Ms. DAOU: Actually, not myself, obviously. The publisher does, which is Ozone Publishing. And this - those astronomy books - this particular astronomy book is not the book - the only book that they have done. I know that they have done a lot of things with the Department of Education as well as they did some maps and geographic maps. So, I really like their products.

FLATOW: So…

Ms. DAOU: …and they have the patent for it.

FLATOW: So, if NASA or Ralph's bosses over there or whoever wants to start now issuing their photos, not only in colorful visual images, but in tactile images, they might be free to do that, too?

Ms. DAOU: I'm sure that, you know, there are different publisher also, of course…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. DAOU: …they might be free and there are different publishers who have different methods for tactile. So - and I don't - I'm not saying that one is better than another but, you know, we worked with this publisher because I like the fact that with that - when you put the overlay acrylic, you still can see the images themselves. And the text is not - because it's not punctured, you can still…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. DAOU: …see text with the Braille.

FLATOW: Okay, Ralph?

RALPH: Thank you very much. That's very exciting.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

Ms. DAOU: Thank you.

FLATOW: Did the overlays go over one at a time or they all, you know, you take one, put it back, take another, put it back that way?

Ms. DAOU: That particular process actually is - it's the way Lilia Molina, the president of Ozone Publishing says that you really have different sheets that go in. It's the same way when you're printing colors.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. DAOU: And it's a very long process. Luckily, she says now that she has the first edition done, it will be easier for her because all the plates are made, it'll be easier for her to go and do other editions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So, do you have another book, and cooking up in your mind there?

Ms. DAOU: There's always the next step cooking up in everybody's mind, and obviously, for us, there is. There is a lot of ideas, and it's really one of the collaborations. These partnerships are one of the best ones that I have done in my life. I'm very happy with it

FLATOW: Can you find these books in just any bookstore?

Ms. DAOU: This far, no. For personal purchasing, one would - or you should go to Ozone Publishing. NASA has purchased about 1,500 books, and we are distributing them nationwide, obviously, for three, like, repositories, the Library of Congress repositories, state repositories for the Library of Congress, several schools for the blind, educational centers, state libraries. One of the reasons that we got involved is we were able to distribute a good number of them for free, and obviously, with our collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind also.

So, they can be found for - to - such in library to borrow them, but if people would like to have them for personal use, Ozone Publishing, I believe is selling them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So, you should be able to find them somehow…

Ms. DAOU: Yes.

FLATOW: …if you want to? And what's the - if we go to your Web site we - you can find it?

Ms. DAOU: If, actually, you go to the Web site of NASA'S observatory such as the Hubble Space Telescope…

FLATOW: Ah.

Ms. DAOU: …or the press release for Hubble, for Chandra X-ray Observatory, or NASA, the press release…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. DAOU: …on the NASA Web sites, you will find the URL for it.

FLATOW: If you want the easy way, just go to Sciencefriday.com and we have all those links there that you can find the book.

Well, we want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us. And good luck to you.

Ms. DAOU: Thank you very much for having me.

FLATOW: Doris Daou is an astronomer at the NASA headquarters in Washington and is one of the co-authors of a new book that has - was unveiled this week, "Touch The Invisible Sky."

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An Astronomy Book the Blind Can Appreciate

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Cover of the book "Touch the Invisible Sky" i

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 a remnant of a supernova, overlaid with straight and curved lines. Ozone Publshing/NASA hide caption

itoggle caption Ozone Publshing/NASA
Cover of the book "Touch the Invisible Sky"

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."

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