Fred’s Head from APH, a Blindness Blog

Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

The Sky's Not the Limit: Astronomy for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Many people have the misapprehension that astronomers study the stars just by looking up. People also used to think that the world was flat, that the universe rotated around the Earth, and that the moon was made of cheese. To many people, the idea of a blind astronomer is impossible. This is not true!

A simple definition of astronomy is: [the] branch of science that studies the motions and natures of celestial bodies, such as planets, stars, and galaxies. (definition taken from . A more complete (and much more complex) definition can be found at [Astronomy is] the science which investigates all the matter-energy in the universe: its distribution, composition, physical states, movements, and evolution. We'll get into this in more detail a little later, the point is that studying and investigating do not require sight; therefore there is no reason a blind person could not become an excellent astronomer. In fact, much of the data an astronomer works with is gathered from instruments that measure waves that are outside of the visible light spectrum, such as x-rays or ultraviolet rays. So in a sense, all astronomers are making adaptations to try to translate things they can't see directly into a form that they can work with.

Now that we've proven that a blind person can study astronomy, lets go back to that complicated definition and investigate it a little more thoroughly. After that, we'll look at some resources available that are accessible to a blind person.

It's More Than Just Stars

As previously stated, astronomy is the science that investigates all the matter-energy in the universe: its distribution, composition, physical states, movements, and evolution. Let's take this apart and look at each component separately.

The first unusual term is "matter-energy". Albert Einstein showed us that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. In other words, energy equals matter, but with a difference in speed. "Matter-energy" therefore is an easy way to refer to "everything that has mass plus everything that is energy."

Next comes distribution, which simply describes how the matter and energy are arranged, either in a specific area or in the universe as a whole. An example of this might be a description of a solar system: the number of planets, comets, and other bodies and the distance at which they circle their star.

Composition refers to the specific chemical make up of matter. This can be either qualitative, where the component elements are listed, or quantitative, where the component elements are shown numerically in specific quantities.

Physical states of matter describe the condition of the matter being studied. There are four states of matter:
1. Solid. This is matter with fixed shape and volume.
2. Liquid. This is matter is fluid. It's molecules move freely but tend not to separate from one another, so its volume is fixed.
3. Gas. This matter is also fluid, but unlike liquids, the molecules in gases tend to expand. It has neither a fixed shape nor a fixed volume.
4. Plasma. This is a gas that is ionized. That means that has an electric charge and therefore behaves differently from an electrically neutral gas.

Movements refer to the positional changes of matter in space. The rotation of the Earth in twenty-four hours is an astronomical movement, as is the revolution of the Earth around the Sun in one year.

Evolution is the process of change over time. The Big Bang theory is an attempt to explain the evolution of the universe-- not only how it all started, but also where it is going.

Accessible Astronomy Resources

The Electronic Universe Project:

Hosted by the University of Oregon, this page is a collection of links to the University's on-line classes and resources about astronomy. Not everything is 100% accessible, but the animation sequences have a separate audio description, and the main text sections are accessible to a screen reader.

Noreen Grice has created three astronomy books for the visually impaired. Her first book, published in 1990, is "Touch the Stars." Printed in braille over large type, this book has several tactile astronomical illustrations including constellations, planets, and galaxies. Her second book, "Touch the Universe" was published in 2001. Written after an idea by Bernhard Beck-Winschatz, astronomer on the faculty of DePaul University, Touch the Universe is a series of images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Each image has a clear plastic thermoform tactile overlay, with raised lines and using various textures to illustrate different colors. Pictures include close-ups of Jupiter and Saturn. Her last book, "Touch the Sun" features arresting images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) spacecraft. Find more information about this books at the NASA Web site:

Seeing Stars is a project to create accessible materials for use by students in the United Kingdom. Funded by an award from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, they have created a book in braille and large print with tactile illustrations that presents information on astronomy, space and space missions. For more information, contact Dr. Martin Barstow (

The Space Telescope Science Institute has created Amazing Space: a set of web-based activities primarily designed for classroom use, but made available on the web for all to enjoy.

These next three websites are from university libraries and have extensive collections of links to on-line publications, including electronic versions of scholarly peer-reviewed journals as well as popular magazines.

  1. Caltech:
  2. Berkeley:
  3. Northwestern:

Here is also the index page of the usenet Astronomy FAQ files: (this is an FTP site and may not be accessible to all browsers):

While not strictly about astronomy, the text-only version of NASA's homepage: a lot of interesting information about space. It has daily updates, so there is always something new!

Footprints on the Moon

by Alexandra Siy

An overview of mankind's study and exploration of the moon, from the building of Stonehenge to astronauts walking on the moon's surface. (Grades 3-6)

Catalog Number: T-N1374-50
Click this link to purchase the book Footprints on the moon.

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Astronomy Cast

Astronomy Cast puts those Ipods and MP3 players to good use in an educational environment. Astronomy Cast, as you've probably guessed, is a series of podcasts about Space Science. In addition to the podcasts, Astronomy Cast hosts a discussion forum for amateur astronomers.

Astronomy Cast is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and has a great education section where school can submit questions for Astronomy Cast to include in upcoming podcasts. The "ask an Astronomer" section of the Astronomy Cast website links visitors to the California Institute of Technology's astronomy web page called Cool Cosmos. Cool Cosmos has a large selection of videos and classroom activities suitable for students in elementary school through high school.

Click this link to visit

Touch the Invisible Sky

NASA has released Touch the Invisible Sky, a 60-page book using 28 embossed images from its Great Observatories, coupled with large-print and braille text to bring the "majestic images" to the visually-impaired and blind.

The tome's pictures - from the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope and other ground-based 'scopes - are "embossed with lines, bumps and other textures" which "translate colors, shapes and other intricate details of the cosmic objects".

According to NASA, Touch the Invisible Sky takes readers on "a cosmic journey beginning with images of the sun, and travel out into the galaxy to visit relics of exploding and dying stars, as well as the Whirlpool galaxy and colliding Antennae galaxies".

The book was written by astronomy educator and accessibility specialist Noreen Grice of You Can Do Astronomy LLC and the Museum of Science, Boston, with authors Simon Steel, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and Doris Daou, an astronomer at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

Touch the Invisible Sky will be distributed through "NASA libraries, the National Federation of the Blind, Library of Congress repositories, schools for the blind, libraries, museums, science centers and Ozone Publishing".

Click this link to Touch the Invisible Sky.

NASA has funded two other astronomy-related Braille books: Touch the Universe and Touch the Sun.

The Cloudymidnights Blog

The Cloudymidnights blog is intended to support and help promote the site, which is a web site for both climatically challenged and visually impaired astronomy enthusiasts.

Click this link to visit

Sounds From Space

From the University of Iowa:

"We can hear the sounds OF space by using scientific instruments on spacecraft as our ears. Scientific instruments detect and record radio waves, then transmit the recorded information to Earth. Once the transmitted information has been received at Earth, the data are processed for use in scientific studies. This processing also allows data to be converted or translated into sounds."

Click this link to listen to the sounds of space:

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