How astronomers are helping people who are blind 'see' the eclipse

ByCassandra Runyon, The Conversation AP logo
Friday, April 5, 2024
How astronomers are helping people who are blind 'see' the eclipse
How astronomers are helping people who are blind 'see' the eclipse

Many people in the U.S. will have an opportunity to witness nearly four minutes of a total solar eclipse on Monday, April 8, 2024, as it moves from southern Texas to Maine. But in the U.S., over 7 million people are blind or visually impaired and may not be able to experience an eclipse the traditional way.

Of course they, like those with sight, will feel colder as the sun's light is shaded, and will hear the songs and sounds of birds and insects change as the light dims and brightens. But much of an eclipse is visual.

Thanks to the team at Harvard University's Lightsound project, hundreds of people who are blind will also have a device to help them absorb the rare astronomical wonder.

"Just because a person can't see, doesn't mean they can't do astronomy," said Harvard Astronomer Allyson Barilla.

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Barilla first had the idea in before the recent 2017 eclipse and teamed up with her colleague Wanda Diaz Merced, who is a blind astronomer, to create a device that could use a light sensor to take in light and convert that data into sound.

"Wanda uses this for her research and this is how she thinks about data," Barilla said.

After successfully using a prototype in 2017, Barilla then secured grant funding to improve the LightSound device for this year's eclipse.

When the device interprets the light from the eclipse, it will use various instruments to connote the different phases. When the light is at its brightest, the device will play the sound of a flute.

Once the sky goes into darkness, the device will only play a light clicking sound, so its users can hear and experience the eclipse as a community with those around them.

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The team received hundreds of requests for 2024. They hosted workshops all over the country to enlist volunteers to help them build enough devices.

"We were trying to build 750 [devices], but we actually ended up building 900," Barilla said.

The LightSound devices have been sent to libraries, museums, schools for the blind and even individuals in their backyard -- all ready to turn the sun into symphony.

"I'm really happy and excited that we developed a tool that can give access to a group of people that I think is sometimes left out," Barilla said.