August 1, 2018

E8 – The Dark Sound of the Moon

Posted by Shane Hanlon

The app used to make astronomy and astrophysics more accessible to everyone including people who are blind and visually impaired.

On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse swept across the continental United States from Oregon to South Carolina. Millions of people stood looking up at the sky, their mouths agape, as the Sun’s disk was completely covered by the Moon. For many people, the experience of day turning into night and back into day, and the sight of the Sun’s corona streaming out behind the dark circle of the Moon, is a picture they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

But what about people who are visually impaired? How did they experience this celestial event? In this episode, Henry “Trae” Winter III, a solar astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, describes how he and his colleagues designed a new way for people who are blind and visually impaired to experience the 2017 total solar eclipse and his work to design and build tools that make astronomy and astrophysics more accessible to everyone, including people who are blind and visually impaired.

Learn more about the app Trae and his colleagues created for the 2017 solar eclipse at


Episode Transcript

Nanci Bompey: So it’s just you and me here Lauren.

Lauren Lipuma: Shane’s away.

Nanci Bompey: Shane is away, shaping young minds.

Lauren Lipuma: He’s off teaching grad students how to catch frogs? Kill frogs? Something…

Nanci Bompey: Something like that. It’s ecology.

Lauren Lipuma: We’re not sure, but we are taking over the podcast.

Nanci Bompey: Nanci and Lauren here taking over the podcast. And it is summer here in D.C.!

Lauren Lipuma: And it is hot as anything.

Nanci Bompey: Yes, it’s like a swamp and that kind of brings me back to last summer.

Lauren Lipuma: What happened last summer?

Nanci Bompey: The eclipse.

Lauren Lipuma: How could I possibly forget about the eclipse?

Nanci Bompey: It was amazing, I actually was, well Lauren, you were here in D.C., so you saw like 70, what was it?

Lauren Lipuma: It was about 90% totality.

Nanci Bompey: Yeah. I though happened to be in Colorado for vacation and got to go up to Wyoming and see totality, which was quite the experience.

Lauren Lipuma: I bet, how was it?

Nanci Bompey: It was amazing, remember I wasn’t that into it in the beginning and then I saw it and I was like moved to almost crying to tears. Yeah, pretty amazing. It took us 14 hours to get back to Colorado from Wyoming, but that’s a whole nother story.

Lauren Lipuma: 14 hours in the car?

Nanci Bompey: Yeah, but totally worth it, totally worth it. Anyway! But that brings us to talk about, it’s such an amazing experience, the only way to kind of talk about it is what you’re seeing, just that it’s so incredible…

Lauren Lipuma: What it looks like.

Nanci Bompey: Yeah and it brings up that interesting question, if you are blind, visually impaired, how do you describe it to someone who can’t see?

Lauren Lipuma: I don’t know.

Nanci Bompey: And that’s kind of the topic of our podcast this week. [music] Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s podcast about the scientists and methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in a manuscript or hear in a lecture. I’m Nanci Bompey.

Lauren Lipuma: And I’m Lauren Lipuma.

Nanci Bompey: And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

Lauren Lipuma: The eclipse brings up this interesting question. So much of space science and planetary science is so visual. We have these amazing images of planets and stars being born and stars dying that I can’t imagine what it’s like, how do you share that with someone who can’t see?

Nanci Bompey: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question, and that’s something actually that this scientist that I met at one of our AGU meetings is trying to answer and trying to help blind and visually impaired people to experience space science.

Trae Winter:      My name is Dr. Henry Degraffenried Winter the Third, but nobody calls me that ever. As much as sometimes I’d like for them to call me doctor, everybody calls me Trae and that’s cause I’m the third and I’ve lived in the South for most of my life where nicknames are a thing. I’m an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lauren Lipuma: So Trae’s a scientist, how does he go about sharing science with people who can’t see? Or who are visually impaired?

Nanci Bompey: Yeah that’s a good question, so he started out as a scientist studying the sun, but got really interested in designing museum exhibits for blind and visually impaired people and one of the coolest things he’s done is design an app for the eclipse last year for people who are blind and visually impaired.

Lauren Lipuma: So how did he get in to doing this?

Trae Winter:      I was working at the museum and they had an exhibit at the museum that was labeled an accessible exhibit, right, it was accessible for people who blind or visually impaired. Oh that’s great, that’s really cool, I wanna check out what this is about. So I went to check it out and it was a death mask, it was very ornate, it was bejeweled and painted and beautiful and under glass because it was thousands of years old so you couldn’t touch it. And the accessibility part was they had a label on the side that gave the name of the mask and the date that it was probably made in Braille. And that was it. Alright? I just sat there and I was outraged because like, that’s not accessible, there’s no experience of that mask by knowing when it was built and what its name was, you’re completely missing the point, how can you call this an accessible exhibit. I realize that my exhibits, and not only my exhibits, but astronomy and astrophysics as a whole, really is inaccessible to people who are blind and visually impaired. And I just didn’t like that.

Lauren Lipuma: So Trae’s a scientist and he got really angry by this lack of accessible museum exhibits so how did he go about designing things for people who are blind and visually impaired.

Nanci Bompey: Well he had to really learn a lot about- he said he started really with no expertise in that area so he had to first go to the community, people who are blind and visually impaired, and learn about how they experience the world.

Trae Winter:      I started working with 3D prints a little bit and was going to take that a little farther in the coming years, but I started working with the National Federation of the Blind, going to some of their symposia on tactile graphics because I didn’t know what I was doing in this space.

The first thing you have to do is learn about the community that you’re trying to serve and as part of that I made a bunch of great friends. One of them is Chancey Fleet, she is the accessible technology coordinator at the New York Public Library. I met her, we talked about some ideas and I had scheduled a trip to visit her in 2017 at her library to kind of learn about what was available and what was there and at the same time I got pulled into doing a bunch of eclipse outreach work.

There was a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. It was the first total solar eclipse to go from one edge of the country to the other in forever and it was a huge deal, NASA really wanted to play it up. And they, NASA, created this Braille book about the eclipse and as we were sitting there exploring the book, I first put it out there and said, I don’t want to tell you anything about it, just explore it on your own and tell me what you get from it. And the book was well made, I don’t mean to be dissing the book, but there were so many points of misinformation that was picked up on the book and so after we explored that book and took some notes she asked me well, what’s an eclipse like? I hadn’t seen one in person, but I’d been trained to talk about it, but I found I had no way to talk about it to somebody that had never seen before because it’s like the day becomes night. Well, what does that mean?

A good friend of mine had told me a story about when he was in a field in the middle of nowhere and saw his first eclipse, when the sky turned night, dark, pretty much, all of the sudden the field came alive with the sound of crickets. They just all started chirping at once. Mammals, like you and I, we have this circadian rhythm and so we’re not as vulnerable to just a quick shift in day and night, but crickets don’t have that, small insects don’t have that, they just respond to changes of light and dark and so they all came out at once and started chirping away, looking for a date that night. And then when the first rays of the sun started to appear across the moon and the eclipse was starting to be over they all switched off immediately and it was just this amazing thing for him. And that’s the story I could relate to her.

That just got me thinking, how can we have these relatable stories to people who have other ways of learning, people who are not visual learners for any reason, including being blind and visually impaired and how can we communicate, not only information, but the excitement and the awe of these images of, in this case the eclipse, but for me, astronomy and astrophysics in general, to people who can’t see. And that kind of got me started on this whole project and this direction that my career seems to be taking now.

Nanci Bompey: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about what you created for the eclipse.

Trae Winter:      Right, so I visited Chancy in February 2017 and the eclipse was in August and I decided okay, I’ve got to do something, what can I do. And that’s what started the Eclipse Soundscapes Project. So the Eclipse Soundscapes Project originally started as an idea to try to record sounds during the eclipse like crickets, like birdsong, all these different things and be able to collect all of these recordings and give them to people who are blind and visually impaired so that they can have this experience with the eclipse.

I convinced NASA that it was a thing to do. That we would do it via mobile devices because most people who are blind and visually impaired interact with the world via mobile devices. It’s been a game changer as far as them being able to be independent and engage with the world around them.

So we were going to do this and it turned out there was no way to actually get live recordings to people on the day of the eclipse. And for me and my team it was really important that we give people who are blind and visually impaired an experience at the time of the eclipse when everyone else was experiencing the eclipse. And we really very strongly wanted to foster two-way communications during the eclipse.

So what we did was, we collected all these images of different stages of the eclipse, from eclipses past, and then we added a sonification layer to them. So what does that mean? It means that all images are, they’re spatial information that we’ve encoded with color, that’s all an image is. So we’ve taken that same spatial information and instead of encoding it with color, we’ve encoded it with sound. The way we did this was through a method called FM synthesis, frequency modulated synthesis. What that does is it takes a series of tones, merges them together to create a variety of different tones, so you’re actually getting all these superimposed tones at once, it has a science fiction feel. One of the reasons why we did that was we wanted there to be a very physical response as people took these images of different stages of the eclipse and then explored it via touch. We didn’t want them to just hear it, we wanted them to be able to feel it.

Now how do you have them feel it on the mobile device? And that’s to actually shake the mobile device. Almost all mobile devices have haptic motors in them, little motors that make them move or vibrate when you put it on silent and you get a phone call? But early on we found out that Apple wasn’t going to let us have access to those haptic motors, even for an accessibility project, because, as they say, it drains the battery too fast. So, challenge…

Nanci Bompey: How do you do this?

Trae Winter:      How do you design around it? How do you use it? And then FM synthesis turned out to be the perfect tool. What we do is we have so many different frequencies of sound, so many different vibrations that if you turn up the speakers loud enough, just like when you’ve got that heavy bass at a rock concert that shakes your rib cage, when you’re too close to the stage, that’s what we were trying to achieve on the pad, have the speakers actually shake the pad a little bit. And we called this process the rumble map. We encoded the variations of light and dark in an eclipse so that you could hear it, but also it could rumble your device in your hands and there would be this sensation that you were actually touching the sun.

Lauren Lipuma: So I actually downloaded the app on my phone Nanci.

Nanci Bompey: Oh, sweet, let’s hear, let’s play with it, yeah.

Lauren Lipuma: You want to play with it? Okay, so I’m opening it up, I’m going to the rumble map. So I’m going to try to put this as close to the mic as I can. So here I’m looking at a picture of Helmets Streamers which is kind of when it’s in totality and you can see parts of the corona extending out from the sun. So I’m going to put my finger on it. Whoa.

Nanci Bompey: You can feel it too.

Lauren Lipuma: Yeah, it’s vibrating, I can feel it against my finger.

Nanci Bompey: That is so cool. I love the app!

Nanci Bompey: People who are blind or visually impaired, what was their reaction to using this app on the day of the eclipse?

Trae Winter:      Our Facebook page got so much love that I can’t even, it makes me tear up sometimes when I ready some of these messages. There’s this one person that sent me a personal message and I put it in all my talks and I tear up every time I talk about it. It’s about how she never thought that she’d be able to experience a sunrise, yet alone an eclipse. This app for her was a unique experience and something that she thought spoke to what you can do if you think about things, if you design for everybody in mind, and you don’t have this bias that some experiences are for some people and not for others.

All over the country and a couple places around the world have sent us emails about using the apps in their classroom, I know a couple of special education teachers who are actually using it to teach their classes some lessons about not only the eclipse, but also memory and different ways of experiencing the world.

Nanci Bompey: Are there other communities that you think could be served, not only by what you’re doing, but also that need to be served, that aren’t being served at all?

Trae Winter:      I talk about nontraditional learners a lot because that really encompasses a lot of people. Some need different combinations, some just have different ways of learning. What we’ve found is that this kind of kinesthetic learning isn’t just a way for people who are blind and visually impaired to have access to information, but it is a way for people who are neuro-atypical learners can also engage in a different way. And the reason why is that the more pathways you give the brain to accept information, the deeper the learning is.

So I think this multi-modal approach really helps everybody. People who are sighted love the app because it’s a new way to experience information and anything that’s new is kind of exciting. So if you’re a visual learner or if you’re a kinesthetic learner or if you’re, you learn better via audio, having all of those available to you at once can really help quite a bit.

Nanci Bompey: So the eclipse was a year ago, but the app was just the beginning for Trae, he’s doing all sorts of things to help blind and visually impaired people experience space science.

Trae Winter:      What I’d like to do is work more on museum exhibits because there’s a real drive for accessibility there. Museums and informal learning places, public learning spaces really want to be inclusive, that is one of their core missions. So my hope is that we can build these things for the museum spaces and then come up with some best practices, some pipelines, some software that we can give out freely to everybody so that you don’t have to recreate that wheel every single time you’re a scientific author. You’re a scientist and you want to put a graphic in your paper, you don’t have to spend the six months I did trying to figure out how to encode this information. You can press a big red button and then that information will be translated into a variety of modes for a variety of non-traditional learners.

Nanci Bompey: One question I have for you, though, that developing this app too, you came from a traditional science background, personally for you, what’s it like to go into this different area and help a community that has been, not been able to access this information?

Trae Winter:      So for me, I mean my dream was to always be a scientist, an astrophysicist, and when I was growing up I was, I grew up in a fairly poor, rural area, and I just didn’t think that this was for me and worked hard, didn’t think working hard was enough, and yet I got here and it meant so much to me.

There is nothing that compares to me like seeing different views of the sun, the universe, potentially being the first person to ever see that. I cannot express adequately how much that meant to me. And to think that some people are very much excluded from that is just kind of abhorrent to me. So it is a bit of a change, but I guess it’s a change that I am really enjoying making. I’ve done my research work, I’ve done the research papers, which are extremely important, advance the knowledge of the sun a little bit, that maybe 30-40 people read and then they do the next papers and they do the next papers. This kind of engagement work, you do get to reach out to a larger population of people and people who are very appreciative to have somebody, to have a team, I should never say somebody, to have teams of people working to make this information accessible for everyone.

So there have been people to say oh well you’re not really an astrophysicist anymore. Well, I kinda am and I’m not. The whole point of being a scientist is that there are things that you don’t know how to do and then you figure out how to do them and that take imagination, it takes creativity, it takes a lot of hard work, it takes research. And it always takes building a team. You will never know everything you need to know to solve hardly any problem. The image of a scientist working alone in a room with just a blackboard and equations is actually not right. You have to work with several other people and their blackboards in order to come to a common answer.

So I think that the skills of being a scientist have actually perfectly trained me to do this kind of work because I know how to ask a question, I know how to form a hypothesis, I know how to realize oh okay, I failed, so it’s time to go back to that drawing board and do it again and I know how to ask for help for people who have specialized knowledge that I don’t have. And I think all of those are key.

Lauren Lipuma: So Nanci, are you going to be an eclipse chaser now? Are you going to the next one in 2024?

Nanci Bompey: Yeah I mean when you see one you’re kind of like totally hooked. And, as one astrophysicist told me, “90% is nothing.”

Lauren Lipuma: Totality or bust.

Nanci Bompey: Yes, you have to go see one Lauren.

Lauren Lipuma: I’m ready, I’m planning for 2024.

Nanci Bompey: Nice.

Lauren Lipuma: [music] Alright everyone, that’s all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Nanci Bompey: Thanks to Trae for sharing his work with us.

Lauren Lipuma: This podcast was produced with help from Shane Hanlon, Josh Speiser, Olivia Ambrogio, and Liza Lester. And thank you to Adell Coleman for producing this episode.

Nanci Bompey: AGU would love to hear your thoughts on this podcast. Please rate and review us and of course you can always find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at Third Pod from the Sun dot com!

Lauren Lipuma: Thanks everyone and we’ll see you next time. Maybe Shane will come back or maybe we’ll take over.