Facts So Romantic

How the Blind See the Stars

Photo courtesy of NASA

The new moon night was dark and rich in stars. The line at the bottom of the steps was 200 deep and growing. This was a busy public night at the Martz/Kohl Observatory atop Robin Hill, in Frewsburg, New York, and the rickety old ladder up to the eyepiece of our biggest ‘scope was getting a workout. When nothing more than space itself and a telescope separates an eye from the open sky, it’s inspiring—a direct view to the heavens cannot be matched by pixels on a screen. On clear nights, that was our promise to the public.

We gave everybody one full minute atop our makeshift staircase to take their own unforgettable trip into space. Our stargazers were almost always patient. But there was one man who would not come down. His minute stretched into two. “Please, sir,” one of us called. “Come down. The next person would like to look.” A long moment passed.

“I saw… a star,” he called down, his voice halting and cracked with emotion. Then again, “I saw a star!” The waiting line began to murmur.

“That’s not a star, buddy,” a voice answered from somewhere back in the line. “We are looking at Jupiter tonight.” The image in the eyepiece would have been sharply focused, a nearly sun-bright, faintly striped disk flanked by its four famous Galilean moons hanging against the velvety black of interplanetary space.

“He’s blind,” a woman on the bottom step said. “I’m his wife. I know. He’s barely seen anything all his life, just lights and shadows. But for him, tonight he saw a star.”

“Let him alone,” someone said. “Let him look as long as he wants.” Everyone, visitors and astronomers alike, saw something inspiring that night through the eye of a blind man. But there are many like him, and NASA is among their most avid supporters and employers.

Everyone, visitors and astronomers alike, saw something inspiring that night through the eye of a blind man.

Consider Tim Doucette, of Quinan, Nova Scotia, who was diagnosed as a child with congenital cataracts. Surgery, starting at age one and through his 20s, allowed doctors to excise his damaged lenses and widen his pupils. The “cure” left him legally blind with a mere 10 percent of his eyesight but also with an unexpected boon. Daylight is blindingly bright to Tim’s unshielded eyes, but nobody can see the night sky quite like Doucette.

So, as one does, he built himself an observatory. His surgically enlarged iris allows the telescope to focus images directly onto his retina, sensitive to ultraviolet and infrared frequencies that normal lenses would filter out. He has exploited that gift in astrophotography since 2004. His newest observatory, the Deep Sky Eye, saw first light on the night of November 15, 2015, in North America’s first certified UNESCO-Starlight Tourist Destination.

People who are blind miss a mere sliver of “light” in the electromagnetic spectrum’s 20 orders of magnitude, from the 1 kiloHertz photons emitted by electrons, which meander through interstellar space, all the way up to 2.4×1023 Hertz gamma ray photons, which pack enough energy to create matter and antimatter. With their naked eyes, humans see only this thin slice in the middle of the 1 x 1014 Hertz range, and call it colorful. What we can see is no more than a hint of all the universe has to show.

What we can see is no more than a hint of all the universe has to show.

In 1948 Edwin Hubble said, “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science.” Today, that’s true in a sense he didn’t intend. Astronomers now convert all the information arriving in photons of every frequency into digital data, and for people with no or low vision, into sound and touch and more in myriad ways.

Astrophysicist Wanda Diaz Merced, for example, became blind in her twenties. She investigates the staggering energy and light released by gamma-ray bursts, the most violent events in the universe, by the newest, non-visual techniques of radio astronomy. She converts her data into the music of the spheres by “sonification” at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The technique transforms visual light curves and huge data sets into sound. By listening to variations in pitch, duration, and other sound qualities, she decodes the crucial patterns to be found in burst-like interstellar light and radio signals.

Sebastián Musso, at the Center for Astronomical Studies in Mar del Plata, Argentina says, “Los ciegos pueden oír”—the blind can hear. He has proposed an acoustic planetarium employing musical pitch, color, texture, and duration to depict celestial objects and events for blind persons or those with amblyopia, or “lazy eye.” For a person who is blind, space produces music.

In 1826, a blind 12-year-old boy in France named Louis Braille invented a revolutionary system of reading and writing by touch. Today, a distant cousin of Braille’s system has been developed by educators in conjunction with NASA, and organizations such as National Braille Press, to publish astronomy books with tactile illustrations employing varied textures, elevated points, shapes, line drawings, and graphs. Ben L. Wentworth, a science teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, created an entirely tactile planetarium for visually impaired students.

Astronomy for the blind is now poised to move beyond static, braille-like representations to active haptics. A group at Stanford University is developing a haptic, table-like “screen” with a grid of thousands of flat, square dowels that rapidly rise and fall to various heights as a substitute for images and videos. One can now imagine a haptic computer screen with small enough tactile pixels to represent changing astronomical events like solar flares or moving satellites for the hands of blind astronomers.

At the Martz/Kohl Observatory, a blind young visitor asked, “What does the solar system look like? I can’t see it.”

“All you need is arms and hands, fingers and feet to see the whole thing,” one of the observatory’s volunteer astronomers said. The boy’s arms could span a yard-wide picture of the sun; one hand could hold an appropriately scaled orange-sized Jupiter, and he pinched a blueberry-sized Earth in his fingers. Then his feet took him more than a football field down the road for the 93,000,000-mile trip from his blueberry to the sun. He knew he would need a fast car to reach Pluto by suppertime.

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Walt Pickut is the editor of the Jamestown Gazette (NY), a science and medical writer and author of Jim Roselle: The Best Years of My Life and Starways End.

Lead photograph courtesy of NASA.


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