Scientists unveil tactile book of astronomical images for blind

The Associated Press
Tuesday June 05, 2001

PASADENA — A new book that translates color images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope into tactile illustrations will allow the blind to touch the stars – as well as galaxies, planets and other astronomical objects captured by the orbiting observatory. 

The 87-page book is the first to pair actual images acquired by the 11-year-old Hubble with clear plastic overlays that render each in raised patterns the blind can read. Braille and large-print text descriptions accompany each of the book’s 14 images. 

“It allows people of varying visual ability to view the book together,” said Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an astronomer at Chicago’s DePaul University who created the book with astronomer and author Noreen Grice. 

The book begins with a Hubble image of Earth and then moves outward into the universe, showing everything from Jupiter to the Eskimo Nebula. It ends with a widefield view of scores of galaxies billions of light-years away. “We can take people on a journey of discovery, starting at the Earth and to some of the deepest places seen,” Grice said during a press conference at the 198th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. 

Throughout the book, “Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy,” identical features are reproduced in tactile form by using consistent patterns or textures. Rings are illustrated with dotted lines, for instance, and curved ones represent gas currents like those that encircle Jupiter. “They can take this with their fingertips and paint an image inside,” said Benning Wentworth III, a science teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, whose students helped develop the book. 

Beck-Winchatz said the idea for the book came when he won an outreach grant connected to his Hubble research on galaxies with black holes. He soon contacted Grice, who had already written a book on astronomy for the blind, but that did not include actual photographs. 

“I really liked the idea. What I didn’t like was it only used hand sketches, when there is such a wealth of real images out there,” Beck-Winchatz said. 

Working in the kitchen of her Connecticut home, Grice traced out each image on aluminum plates. The plates were then used to create the plastic overlays, which match perfectly the underlying color photocopied images. 

The entire book was then assembled by hand, all on a shoestring budget covered by the $10,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Grice said she expected the book would be prove popular with science classes for the blind. 

“This is the only way to touch something that is so distant,” she said. 

Only three prototypes exist now, but Grice and Beck-Winchatz hope to print 400 copies for sale beginning later this summer. Each should cost less than $40, or slightly more than it costs to produce. 

Although the tactile versions fall short of reproducing the intricate detail of many of the Hubble images, Wentworth said the overlays contain a powerful message for blind students of astronomy. 

“That there are objects, they are out there and they are very real and we can start painting them in our minds,” said Wentworth.