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To Touch the Heavens

Noreen Grice has given the visually impaired a feel for the universe

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In 1999, out of the blue, she got an e-mail from DePaulUniversity astronomy professor Bernhard Beck-Winchatz proposing that she develop a book of tactile Hubble Space Telescope images. Beck-Winchatz, who also serves as the associate director of DePaul’s NASA Space Science Center for Education and Outreach, had come across Touch the Stars in a bookstore and was inspired to make the amazing Hubble images accessible for the ten million blind and visually impaired people in this country. He got a $10,000 grant from NASA, and Grice began creating Touch the Universe.

To make sure the images for the new book would work, Grice enlisted the help of teacher Benning Wentworth III and his ten astronomy students at the ColoradoSchool for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs. The students suggested, for example, that some of the raised pictures had too much detail for their fingers to interpret. One of the images, called the Hubble Deep Field North, is a collection of tiny swirls and blobs that depict galaxies billions of light-years distant. In her initial attempt, Grice had carefully rendered nearly every swirl and blob; on the students’ advice, she eliminated many of the fainter galaxies, making the final embossed photograph much easier to comprehend.

“We see with our mind’s eye, not only with our eyes,” says Wentworth. “With this book, our students have something that can help form the image in the mind.” One girl, for example, told Wentworth that the tactile picture of the Eskimo Nebula, so named because it looks like a head surrounded by the fur-edged hood of a parka, felt like a crispy fried egg.

But is there really any point in trying to convey a sense of astronomical objects to people who will never gaze at the brilliance of the night sky or peer through a telescope at a spiral galaxy? You might ask Kent Cullers, age 54, a radio astronomer with the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in Mountain View, California, and the world’s only totally blind astronomer. (He was the inspiration for the blind astronomer in the movie Contact.) In his forward to Touch the Stars II, Cullers wrote, “I can calculate the temperature of a star, but, before reading this book, I knew nothing about the appearance of the constellations.”

Not surprisingly, Cullers is a big fan of Grice. “She was good at imagining the difficulties that a blind person might have, without, as typically happens with sighted people, becoming overwhelmed,” he says. “She had enough empathy to get it, but not so much that she couldn’t deal with it.”

Maybe that’s because her empathy is fortified with optimism. Grice got an e-mail recently from a woman who wanted to order Touch the Universe for her blind 10-year-old son. Despite all odds, wrote the mother, her son aspires to become an astronaut.

Says Grice, her earnest face alight: “Why not?”

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