Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Touching the Cosmos

Most astronomy books for the public are full of gorgeous, glossy pictures or star charts that help people navigate around the sky. Such books are so commonplace these days that it’s hard to find a Borders or Barnes and Noble that doesn’t have at least one on the “bargain books” shelf. But Noreen Grice’s astronomy books are not your typical books – in fact you may have to visit a library or order your own copy to get your hands on one. But it’s worth it, believe me.

Like many books, Grice’s books feature pictures of celestial objects and explanatory text. All the books are general introductions to their subject (stars, universe, sun) and don’t contain any new information or formulas. What is so unique about Grice’s books is that they don’t just let you see the universe; they let you touch it.

Grice’s books were developed for blind and visually impaired people. The motivation behind her books – allowing visually impaired people to explore the heavens – is inspiring and a story worth reading. But that story has already been written, I’ll refer you to the Smithsonian Magazine story.

What I wanted to bring up here is the value of these books for sighted people. I’ve played with Touch the Universe and Touch the Sun as well as astronomical pictures taken by SEE students that have been converted into tactile images by a Swell-Form graphics machine. Let me tell you, there is something about actually touching the images - feeling the solar wind spew from the sun and touching the rings of Jupiter - that adds a whole new dimension to the wonder I feel and to my understanding of the phenomenon.

Touch is a powerful sense. Imagine that, like Marie / Rouge in X Men: The Last Stand, you are in love with someone but can’t touch him or her…Yikes. Now imagine that you could touch that person but not see him or her...Or touch and see but not smell...Our sense have a way of working together to allow us to more fully experience the moment we're in-

Although you can’t (yet) feel the heat of the sun or the cold of space through Grice’s pictures, you can feel the outlines of the bodies and the irregularities in their surfaces. You can feel the relative differences in appearance between close and distant galaxies and you can follow some of their arms as they spiral around. You can feel the phase of the moon change over time. And you can feel your connection to the cosmos become a little deeper.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your kinds words regarding my accessible astronomy books. I believe that we all have different learning styles and that tactile materials can be useful for both blind and sighted readers. My goal is to make the universe an accessible place for people of all abilities. Thanks for your support and please check out my web site at http://www.youcandoastronomy.com.

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