Flamsteed Astronomy Society

Astronomy for the Blind — Nov 6, 2006

Terry Goodman & David Waugh

Dave Waugh and Terry Goodman by Mike Dryland

Is astronomy a surprising interest for a blind person?   It shouldn’t be.  Terry Goodman is one of the Flamsteed’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic members.  He seldom misses a lecture or visit and is usually the first with a good follow-up question at the end.  What Terry cannot experience through vision he seeks to make-up in hearing and the sensation of touch.

When you think about it, visible light now represents a very small part of the data used by modern astronomy.  For almost every telescope using visible light, there’s at least one infrared, ultra-violet, and X-ray instrument at work too.  We forget that most of the spectacular images sighted people have got used-to, are really false-colour composites layered from several visual and non-visual sources.  A sighted person would never really be able to witness such views directly anyway, no matter where in the universe they placed themselves.

Terry partly uses his sense of touch instead of vision.  He and David have been experimenting with some technology that can maybe help Terry to perceive new aspects of astronomical objects through touch.  In reality Terry can no more touch a distant galaxy than sighted people can ever really see the false-colour images we take for granted, but Terry can feel sizes, positions, thicknesses, and distributions of objects on a ‘tactile image’ — a raised-relief page, rather like reading Braille print.

When Terry and Dave started to dig around for ideas they found a group at the Yerkes Observatory near Chicago had a lot of experience working with blind students on visits to their big refracting telescope — the largest in the world still in existence.  The picture, right, shows a party of blind students examining the big refractor.   The Yerkes group had been given a machine that converts visual photocopier images into tactile images — raised relief on a sort of plasticky paper.  Blind visitors can feel the shapes and distributions of the objects in the images.  David describes it as a sort of rotary toasting machine heated by incandescent lamps.  You put ‘Swellform’ paper in one end, pass the ordinary photocopier original through, and out comes the tactile page you can feel.  The tactile image is fairly high contrast and low resolution but nevertheless, something that can add to Terry’s experience of the objects.

Terry and David visited the RNIB in Birmingham which has a specialist unit for these tactile diagrams.  They tried making tactile prints of several kinds of astronomical objects.  Planet images didn’t work too well — the subtle markings on the surface don’t show up and all you get is a circular blob.  They were also advised that tactile prints of Saturn wouldn’t always be properly understood and would need good prior briefing.  However, prints of deep-space objects come out surprisingly well, and prints of the Sun and Moon are also very helpful.   In a real teaching situation a guide would explain what’s happening before handing round the tactile prints.  The RNIB runs a course for guiders to work with this technique.


Dave Waugh & Terry Goodman by Ian McDowell

How can the Flamsteed and the NMM get involved?  The starting point would be to buy one of the thermographic printers — cost about £400.  It may be possible eventually to create tactile prints in real-time from a digital camera on a telescope, hooked-up to the printer, but in practice we need to learn to walk before we can run.  David has begun discussions with the NMM Education department to explore other uses in addition to the astronomy application, and we hope to persuade the Museum to work with us on a project to develop the technique.


We will conclude with David & Terry’s own words —

“Spreading knowledge and direct experience of astronomy to the widest possible population is part of what this Society is all about.  We have a superb opportunity to work together to enhance the experience of existing blind visitors and reach out to others.

In the past so many walks of life were closed to blind people, including many of the sciences.  All this is changing but quite slowly.  Communicating our enthusiasm to younger blind people and avoiding their exclusion from science — expanding their horizons — I think would be really worthwhile.

We commend this proposal to the House !”

Zy-Fuse heater for tactile prints

by ZyChem Ltd., Cheshire

Terry & David in the Queen’s House

(pic Ian McDowell)