Wanda Diaz Merced: How Can We Hear The Stars? When astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced lost her eyesight, she thought she'd never succeed in astronomy. Eventually, she discovered a way to hear the stars.
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How Can We Hear The Stars?

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How Can We Hear The Stars?

How Can We Hear The Stars?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about the five senses - smell, touch, taste, sight and sound. And though we might think our senses help us experience reality as it is, most of the signals they send are personal and highly subjective, and it means the way each of us perceives the world around us is unique. So let's start with sound. I want to play sound for you, Wanda. Can you tell me what this is?

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITORY GRAPH)

WANDA DIAZ MERCED: (Laughter) That is a GRB - right? - what you're playing.

RAZ: What's a GRB?

MERCED: It's a gamma ray burst.

RAZ: This is Wanda Diaz Merced. She's an astronomer.

MERCED: I'm from Puerto Rico.

RAZ: And that sound she just described, the gamma ray burst, that would become a key that unlocked a whole world that was closed off to Wanda. And the story of how that happened starts when she was about 19. Wanda was a student at a college in Maine, where she was super into science.

MERCED: I was doing my physics and my mathematics, but at the back of my head my thought was I would become a doctor, like a general practitioner.

RAZ: But around this time, Wanda started having problems. In the mornings in class, her friends would ask her why her hair wasn't done quite right. She also started tripping a lot. She'd have scrapes all over her knees. So she went to see a doctor.

MERCED: When I go to the doctor in Maine, it's because I'm already having blind spots.

RAZ: You just start to notice blind spots in your visual field?

MERCED: Yes.

RAZ: Wanda was born with diabetes. And it turned out, because of a rare complication, the disease was slowly destroying her retinas.

MERCED: And then we began the treatment and so on and so forth.

RAZ: But the treatment was just delaying the inevitable. By the time Wanda turned 29, she was completely blind. But all this time, she never abandoned her passion for physics and math. And even though she gave up on the idea of becoming a doctor, she found another passion, which was astronomy. And Wanda decided she wanted to study the cosmos. But as she explained on the TED stage, her blindness made it impossible for her to read any astronomical data.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MERCED: On the left, you will be seeing...

RAZ: Wanda showed a series of data points plotted on a graph which was data from a dying star.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MERCED: Earlier in my career, I could also see this kind of plot. But then I lost my sight, and with it I lost the opportunity to see this plot. And professionally, it left me without a way to do my science. I longed to access and scrutinize this energetic light and figure out the astrophysical cause. I wanted to experience spacious wonder, the excitement, the joy produced by the detection of such a titanic celestial event.

RAZ: And this is the point in Wanda's story where she began to find hope.

MERCED: I had a very good mentor. His name is Robert Candey at NASA Goddard Flight Center. He was the one who brought me to my first internship, and he was the one who...

RAZ: Wonder says Robert Candey just saw her blindness differently. He challenged her to come up with a way for blind researchers to get more familiar with some of NASA's astronomical data.

MERCED: And I said I'm not going to just get familiarized with the data, I want to do science. I want to do some physics.

RAZ: What Wanda realized was that the graphs of data most scientists look at, those are just numbers put to a page plotted out over time, the rise and fall from left to right. And so what if, she wondered, what if she could instead plot that same data into sound rising and falling but in pitch? So with a lot of hard work and some computer programming, she did.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITORY GRAPH)

RAZ: This, believe it or not, is the sound of radiation from a star. On a graph it would look just like a squiggly line, lots of data points, some spikes higher than others. And Wanda found a way to turn those spikes into noise.

MERCED: A lot of spikes (imitating auditory graph) going up and down.

RAZ: And so just like sighted researchers, Wanda was able to study a graph and listen for data points out of normal range.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITORY GRAPH)

RAZ: When she hears those sounds, she knows she's found something important in the data.

MERCED: Because when I'm observing or when I'm listening, it's like a vigilance task. I keep vigilant for the unexpected.

RAZ: So after Wanda did this for the first time, she analyzed her results, and then she nervously brought them to her mentor.

MERCED: I sent him an email and my legs were shaking. And when he told me that he thought that I was right and to move it ahead and then linked me to other professionals to continue moving the research forward, to me it was like an epiphany.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MERCED: I achieved access to the data, and today I'm able to do physics at the level of the best astronomer - using sound. And what people have been able to do, mainly visually, for hundreds of years, now I do it using sound. Listening to this gamma ray burst that you're seeing on the...

(APPLAUSE)

MERCED: ...Thank you - that you're seeing on the screen. Now I'm going to play the burst for you. It's not music, it's sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITORY GRAPH)

MERCED: This is scientific data converted into sound, and it's mapped in pitch. The process is called sonification.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITORY GRAPH)

RAZ: It's actually beautiful. It's a beautiful sound. Can you...

MERCED: Yes.

RAZ: What does a gamma ray look like in space? I mean, no one has ever seen it, a sighted person or a person without sight. But we can all probably imagine what it looks like based on the data, right?

MERCED: It will look or it will feel as a beam of energy. It's a massive outburst of energy in one direction, so massive that I don't think any eye would be able to resist. Such if you - your retina will detach instantly...

RAZ: Yeah.

MERCED: ...If you see that kind of brilliance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So don't get me wrong, I mean, the sound of a gamma ray burst is beautiful, but I have a hard time hearing the data in it.

MERCED: Yes. In Buddhism there is a saying that says that the voice does the Buddha's work - right? - it conveys the heart.

RAZ: Yeah.

MERCED: So when you hear these sounds, it's like listening to someone talking to you. When I hear someone talking, and I guess most blind people and people that are not visually oriented, they can tell if the person is sad or if something has happened to that person, if the person is angry, et cetera. It's the same thing with this sound. And you feel that something is being communicated to you, that you're just perceiving it, and it makes you feel - it makes me feel good. It makes me feel great.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MERCED: The body is something changeable. Anyone may develop a disability at any point. And what - let's think about, for example, scientists that are already at the top of their careers. What happens to them if they develop a disability? Information access empowers those to flourish. When we give people the opportunity to succeed without limits, that will lead to personal fulfillment and prospering life. And I think that the use of sound in astronomy is helping us to achieve that and to contribute to science.

I think that science is for everyone. It belongs to the people, and it has to be available to everyone because we are all natural explorers. I dream on a level scientific playing field, where people encourage and respect each other, where people exchange strategies and discover together. If people with disabilities are allowed into the scientific field, an explosion, a huge titanic burst of knowledge will take place, I am sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITORY GRAPH)

MERCED: That is the titanic burst. Thank you. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

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