Future Reflections                                                                                       Convention, 2002

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Can Blind People be Astronomers?

by Bernhard Beck-Winchatz
DePaul University

Editor’s Note: Melissa Williamson (see “Me and My PE Teacher” in this issue) was right—when it comes to blindness, some sighted people just get it. After you read the article below, I think you’ll agree that Dr. Beck-Winchatz belongs to that special circle of those who “get it.” And yes, this is the same Bernhard Beck-Winchatz of Touch the Universe fame. See the article "Touch the Universe: A Review" in this issue. To order the book on line go to http:www.nap.edu/catalog/10307.html.   Here’s what he says:

Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz and students
Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz (left) discusses astronomy with blind students from the Wisconsin School for the Blind

Have you ever wondered how the universe began, how Sun and Earth formed, how life got started on our planet, and if there are worlds similar to our own somewhere else in the universe? Throughout our history we as humans have asked questions like these to understand our place in the cosmos. Some turn to religion for answers. Astronomy addresses these questions from a scientific point of view. Maybe you feel excited when you think about the vastness of space, or the possibility that someday human beings may be able to communicate with other intelligent civilizations across our galaxy. As an astronomer with a strong interest in education, I know firsthand that many students from elementary school through college are fascinated by astronomy. Some of them may choose astronomy as a career, but for the majority it is simply an exciting gateway to other areas of science and technology.

I am not blind or visually impaired, and neither are any of the members of my family or friends. But I do feel strongly that the questions addressed in astronomy are important for everyone, whether they are sighted or not. We all want to know who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. After all, this is everyone’s universe! In this article I would like to share some of my thoughts on engaging blind and visually impaired students in astronomy.

When I started to work on Touch the Universe – A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy, I soon realized that there is a basic misconception about astronomy: Many people believe that it is a visual science. They think of an astronomer as someone who looks through a telescope, and takes notes on what he or she observes in the sky. This may have been the way Galileo conducted his observations almost 400 years ago, but modern astronomy is very different. Digital cameras are vastly superior to our eyes (and even photographic film) and have long since replaced them as detectors of the light collected by telescopes. They are more sensitive than our eyes, allow us to precisely measure subtle differences in brightness, position and shape, and permit the long exposures necessary to detect objects that are many billion times fainter than what our eyes can see. Once digital cameras have recorded the light from astronomical objects electronically, it is transferred to a computer and processed using specialized software. Astronomers use their eyes to read numbers, words, and sometimes graphs on the computer screen, but never as scientific instrument to make measurements. There is nothing a blind person could not do as well.

Another misconception is that astronomers have to travel to remote mountaintops to conduct their observations. Many astronomical telescopes can be operated remotely over the Internet. For example, I conducted the observations for my dissertation research with a telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. But I never actually traveled to New Mexico. Instead, I sent instructions to the telescope over the Internet from my office at the University of Washington in Seattle. A technician on-site was there to assist me in case there was a problem with the telescope. When I rode my bike home through the rainy streets of Seattle in the early morning after my observations were completed, I sometimes felt like I missed out on trips to the desert and long romantic nights under the stars. But my point is that you can be an astronomer even if you find it difficult to travel, or think that it might be hard for you to operate a large telescope yourself.

Another example is robotic telescopes in space. Many astronomical observations are conducted with such telescopes to avoid interference by Earth’s atmosphere. For example, I use observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits Earth 600 kilometers above the ground. Hubble is operated remotely by a team of astronomers, engineers, and technicians at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Astronomers from around the world send their proposals to this team, which then conducts the observations for them. The data is then sent back to astronomers via the Internet for scientific analysis. Space Telescope Science Institute also maintains an archive of past observations. Any astronomer can download archival data and use it for his or her own research.

It may surprise you to hear that frequently the most important and difficult part of the work of astronomers is not to answer interesting questions, but to ask them. This requires that they continuously read the latest journal articles and books to learn everything they can about the area of astronomy they are interested in, and to keep up-to-date on what other scientists around the world are working on. Once they have formulated an interesting question, they collect and analyze the data they need to address their question. Finally, they compare their results with the research of others, and publish articles in astronomical journals to let their colleagues across the world know about their findings. Sometimes they are able to answer their questions, but most of the time they just add another piece to the puzzle. Astronomers must have very good math, science, and computer skills, but there is nothing in the work of an astronomer that prevents a blind student from pursuing this field.

Modern astronomy can also teach us something about the nature of blindness itself. Since almost all objects in space are too far away for humans to visit them, we have to extract everything we want to know from the light they send to us. Light is made of tiny waves of electric and magnetic fields. The length of these waves varies depending on the color. For example, red light has a slightly longer wavelength than blue light. White light is a mixture of waves of different wavelengths. You can see this when you look at a rainbow: when sunlight passes through water droplets in the air, waves of different wavelengths are deflected at slightly different angles. The light from the Sun is split into different colors, and the result is a beautiful rainbow.

But visible light is only a tiny part of what is called the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves used in radio and TV broadcasts, microwaves used to heat food and in cell phone communication, infrared radiation used in television remote controls, ultraviolet radiation used in tanning beds, x-rays used by orthopedic surgeons, and gamma rays used to sterilize meats are also part of this spectrum. But they are invisible to our eyes because their wavelengths are either too long or too short.

Each part of the electromagnetic spectrum gives us a different perspective on objects on Earth and in space. Even if we know what an object looks like in visible light, observing it again in invisible light almost always reveals new, interesting, and frequently surprising details. When firefighters look into a burning room with their eyes in visible light, all they may be able to see is that it is filled with smoke. Infrared goggles allow them to see through the smoke and perhaps discover people who are trapped inside. When orthopedic surgeons examine a leg with their eyes, they may only see that it is swollen, but when they use x-rays, which can penetrate human tissue, they can tell that a bone is fractured. Astronomers use electromagnetic waves from all parts of the spectrum to observe the universe. Every type of visible and invisible light reveals a different piece of the puzzle. When all pieces are put together, the whole picture starts to emerge.

Firefighters use infrared light to see though smoke, surgeons use x-rays to see through human tissue, and astronomers use all types of electromagnetic waves to study the universe. But do they have infrared or x-ray vision? Of course not! However, this doesn’t prevent them from building instruments that can detect the different types of invisible light their eyes cannot see. When you think about it, the difference between a sighted person and a blind person is very small. In addition to being blind in radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and gamma rays, a blind person is also blind in a tiny region of the spectrum we call visible light. Yes, being able to see visible light is very helpful both in everyday life and in science. But the lesson astronomy teaches us is that if you cannot see visible light with your eyes, find other ways to see it, for example, by using technology, or by “borrowing” someone else’s eyes. Never ever let blindness stop you from pursuing your interests and dreams! I hope some of you are dreaming about becoming astronomers!

Bernhard Beck-Winchatz holds an M.S. in Physics from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet in Munich, Germany, and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is currently an assistant professor in DePaul University’s Scientific Data Analysis and Visualization program. Bernhard has developed and taught a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate astronomy and physics courses, and currently teaches space science courses for practicing K-8 teachers in Chicago Public Schools. He has co-developed Touch the Universe – A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy (with Noreen Grice), which makes images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. He has authored or co-authored fifteen research publications on quasars, stellar jets, globular cluster stars, and variable stars. Bernhard currently lives in Chicago with his wife Michaela, who is an assistant professor in speech communication.

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