Helping blind people to hear the Universe
A new project that allows partially sighted children and adults to ‘hear’ the Universe is being launched today (7 December).
Astronomers from the universities of Newcastle and Portsmouth, supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), have developed Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System, a sound-based educational astronomy show to make learning about the Universe a more immersive and inclusive experience for all.
The UK premiere took place last night (6 December) at Life Science Centre in Newcastle and Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium in Hampshire. Although the show’s primary audience is school children aged 7–14, it is an enjoyable experience for people of all ages.
Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium
The show takes the audience on an immersive journey inside a special spacecraft fitted with a ‘sonification machine’ that turns the light from objects in space into sounds.
One example is how the audience ‘listen’ to the stars that appear above the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. Each star in the sky is represented by one musical note. The colour of the star determines the pitch of the note and the brightness of the stars determines the volume of the note. The brightest stars also appear first (as is the case for stars appearing after sunset). The position of each star determines in which speakers it can be heard. Listen here.
Newcastle University’s Dr Chris Harrison is an astronomer and creator and director of the Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System show. Dr Harrison said: “Interest in using sound to represent astronomical data has been growing over the past few years because astronomers have realised the potential to use our ears, instead of, or as well as our eyes, to explore the latest gigantic datasets coming from telescopes. Furthermore, a couple of blind professional astronomers have also used sound for their research – because traditional visual techniques are limited in usefulness for them.
“By developing sound-based approaches to represent astronomy that are useful for children all the way to professional researchers, we hope with our Audio Universe project to increase accessibility to enjoy the wonders of the Universe and to increase representation of the blind community as professional astronomers.”
There are astronomers who have been using sound rather than visual graphs and images. As someone with a vision impairment I really wish this kind of show had existed when I was a kid.
The project uses a specially designed computer code called Sonification Tools and Resources for Astronomers Using Sound Synthesis (STRAUSS) to represent real astronomical data through sound in a variety of ways.
The code’s lead developer Dr James Trayford, from the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, said: “Our code was originally developed for research applications, with the aim to use our ears to detect subtle signals in the data that our eyes might miss using traditional visual graphs and images. However, the code can be used for many applications, and we were delighted to use it for our new educational show. With the release of this show, we are also making our code public and look forward to the astronomical community using it and further developing it in collaboration with us.”
Music is a key part of the show. In contrast to standard astronomy shows, the soundtrack was designed first so that it would be educational and enjoyable on its own, and only then were visual animations added. Composer Dr Leigh Harrison said: “Finding the right balance between science and musical consideration for making the sounds for the show was a matter of intense discussion between myself and the astronomers. Getting this balance right was important for creating a show that was both true enough to the data to remain educational and scientific but also resulted in an overall enjoyable experience for the audience.”
Members of the vision impaired community were vital throughout the development of the show. Vision impaired astronomer Dr Nic Bonne from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, acted as a consultant on the project and he also plays himself in the show and acts as the expert tour guide.
Dr Bonne said: “There are astronomers who have been using sound rather than visual graphs and images. As someone with a vision impairment I really wish this kind of show had existed when I was a kid.”
A vision impaired school pupil gave up his time, once a week for several months, to provide his perspective of being a vision impaired school pupil who is interested in the Universe. This was facilitated through Rachel Lambert, a Qualified Teacher of Children and Young People with Vision Impairment (QTVI), who works with Newcastle Children’s Vision Team. Rachel also plays the voice of the spaceship’s captain for the show. Rachel said: “I think this show will raise the expectations and aspirations of children with a vision impairment. There is an excellent role model in real life astronomer Dr Bonne who is also vision impaired. It is very important for all children to have those role models in real life situations who they can aspire to and who demonstrate that they can do whatever they want to do.”
In recognition of the important contributions from members of the community who helped develop the show, including VIEWS Group Newcastle (who support visually impaired people to reach their potential and participate in educational, social and cultural activities), a justgiving page has been set up. Donations are gratefully received.
Audio Universe: Tour of the Universe has been released online for free for both professional planetariums and for viewing online at home or in schools. It is part funded by the STFC `Spark Award’ and a Royal Astronomical Society Education and Outreach Small Grant.
Jenni Chambers, Head of Public Engagement and Skills at STFC, said: “We are delighted to support this ground-breaking initiative which will illustrate the wonders of the cosmos for visually impaired young people in the UK and internationally. Visiting a planetarium and learning about the enormous potential of STEM careers can be the first step on a path that will provide rewarding opportunities in education and work. We hope that this resource will help to achieve our vision of a fully inclusive research and innovation system, which inspires young people from all walks of life to take part in exciting science and technology.”
All of the Audio Universe resources are available on the project website.
A study about how the show was designed, including details of the science behind the show and the STRAUSS code, is being published in the journal Astronomy & Geophysics.