To Touch the Heavens

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

Nearly three years ago, astronomer Noreen Grice was spending all her weekends working—not gazing up at the stars, but hunched over her kitchen table in Connecticut carving circles, scoring squiggles and jabbing bumps into thin, record-album-size sheets of aluminum. Even so, she was focused on the universe: she was creating tactile “pictures” that would allow the blind—for the first time ever—to “see” photographs of planets, nebulae and galaxies. Says Grice, who presents planetarium shows at Boston’s Museum of Science: “I had very sore wrists.”

This past November, the aluminum sheets that Grice painstakingly fashioned became the basis for a book, Touch the Universe ( Joseph Henry Press, Washington, D.C.). It’s a collection of 14 pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the 43.5-foot-long earth-orbiting satellite that since 1990 has beamed back images of planets, stars and galaxies, including the most distant views of the universe ever taken by an optical telescope. In Grice’s book, Hubble’s snapshots appear in full color for the sighted. And for the blind—thanks to Grice’s sore wrists—the contours of Saturn’s rings, the swirl of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, even the brilliant color of interstellar gas clouds are conveyed by ridges and bumps embossed on the images.

Astronomy, with its forever-out-of-reach subject matter, might seem the unlikeliest science to translate for touch. But for Grice, 40, who has the openness, earnestness and affability of a natural teacher, the only question was, why not? It started with a chance encounter that she had in 1984 during the summer before her senior year at BostonUniversity while working as an intern at the Museum of Science. Students from the nearby PerkinsSchool for the Blind were visiting, and Grice had helped them to their seats at the planetarium. After the show, she asked what they thought of it.

“That stunk!” said one.

Like most planetarium shows, it had been a visual journey through the night sky. There had been no explanation that might have helped those who couldn’t see it for themselves to know what it was all about. Grice thought, Why does it have to stink?

She decided to write a brochure that could be produced in Braille. “Then I said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not what’s missing. The thing that’s missing is the pictures.’” A day or two later, she took the bus to the PerkinsSchool library. “I pulled the astronomy books down and I flipped through them, and there wasn’t one picture,” she says. Later, Grice learned that the only tactile illustrations available were made by an expensive, labor-intensive process of molding plastic over objects hand-glued onto cardboard.

Back at BostonUniversity, searching for a senior project, she walked into her professor’s office and said, “I’d like to write an astronomy book for the blind.” But though Grice completed the text for the book and earned her degree, she couldn’t come up with a way to produce the illustrations she envisioned.

In 1987, after earning her master’s in astronomy at San DiegoStateUniversity (where she met her husband, WesternConnecticutStateUniversity astronomer Dennis Dawson), she returned to work at the museum. But the problem of illustrating the book nagged at her. “I hadn’t finished it,” she says, “and I always complete projects.”

A few months later, she happened on a brochure for a VersaPoint machine, essentially a printer that can convert images drawn on a computer into patterns of raised dots on paper. Grice got a grant to buy one of the machines and set to work. With it she made a few bas-relief pictures—diagrams of constellations and the phases of the moon—to hand to the visually impaired at the planetarium shows. Suddenly, blind visitors found that the show didn’t stink quite as much.

By 1989, with $6,000 from the museum, Grice had produced 400 copies of a book of astronomical diagrams titled Touch the Stars. (A revised edition, Touch the Stars II, is now published by National Braille Press.) Worried that the museum would get stuck with a pile of unsold books, Grice says, “I was really sweating.” She needn’t have. The 400 copies sold out within a year, and so did a second run of 800.

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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