An Astronomy Book the Blind Can Appreciate Astronomer Noreen Grice translates celestial images into tactile objects with raised lines and special textures in hopes of making astronomy accessible to blind people.
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An Astronomy Book the Blind Can Appreciate

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An Astronomy Book the Blind Can Appreciate


With telescopes these days capturing astonishing images of faraway galaxies and other cosmic mysteries, a new book is helping everyone appreciate those pictures, even people who can't see. It was unveiled yesterday in Baltimore by NASA and the National Federation of the Blind.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Back in 1984, Noreen Grice was 21 years old. She was studying astronomy at Boston University and had a job at the local planetarium. One Saturday, a group of blind people came to the show. After it was over, she went up to them.

Ms. NOREEN GRICE (Co-Author, "Touch the Invisible Sky: A Multi-Wavelength Braille Book Featuring Tactile NASA Images"): I said, so how did you like the show? And there was an uncomfortable pause, 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The next day, she took a bus to a school for the blind. She found its library and looked for astronomy books. They were thick books, printed in braille.

Ms. GRICE: But something was missing. And I said, where are the pictures? Are there any pictures in these books?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The librarian said, well, no. Not often. It's expensive to translate an image into raised lines and textures that a person can feel with their fingers. Noreen Grice says it just killed her that blind people weren't getting the kind of cool astronomy books she'd loved as a kid.

Ms. GRICE: I had grown up in the housing projects outside Boston. 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her first book, "Touch the Stars," came out in 1990. She used the 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.

Ms. GRICE: Basically, I was etching them by hand in my kitchen somewhere like, really, difficult. When you have defused gas that you can hardly see, it is very difficult to apply a texture to it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her latest book, with two co-authors, is "Touch the Invisible Sky." It's beautiful, designs to be read by both blind people and sighted people. It has images taken by telescopes that detect things like radio waves, X-rays, and gamma rays - wavelengths of light that no one can see with the naked eye.

Ms. GRICE: Well, I think we all have the same thing in common with this book that no human can see these other wavelengths. So we're all approaching it together.

Dr. MARC MAURER (President, 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. Blind people can do it and we find it fascinating.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marc Maurer is president of the National Federation of the Blind. He says, as a kid, he loved the science textbooks his mom read to him. But a popular science book he could read himself? There was nothing like that.

Dr. MAURER: There still are not enough books. Science with pictures and graphics, and they're almost non-existent.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's why Chelsea Cook(ph) got her family to drive four hours to Baltimore for the new book's unveiling. She loves Noreen Grice's books.

Ms. CHELSEA COOK (High School Student, Newport News, Virginia): So really interesting. You know, the visuals are - you can read and they're just cool to look at.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cook is a high school student in Newport News, Virginia. She says she has enough vision to see a full moon but not stars. Still, she wants to study Astrochemistry, and her ultimate career?

Ms. COOK: The concept of a blind astronaut. It'd be a lot to work towards, but I think it's possible.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, would you want to do that?

Ms. COOK: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. COOK: Yes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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