Bringing universe into anyone's reach

Astronomer Kent Cullers has spent most of his life studying the cosmos. But until recently the 53-year-old had never seen it.

Cullers, who has been blind since birth and served as the model for a character in the Jodie Foster film Contact, knew all about nebulas, neutron stars and other heavenly objects through his work at the SETI Institute in California.


But it wasn't until his fingertips swept across the pages of an innovative new book of Hubble Space Telescope photographs that he understood what other astronomers saw when they peered at the heavens.

"When I felt - or saw - it, it was an extremely powerful emotional experience," Cullers said.


Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy, being unveiled today at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, is the first attempt to share with the blind the arresting images captured by the Hubble telescope.

Written in English and Braille, the slim 64-page book contains 14 of Hubble's most famous shots of space, from the majestic gas pillars of the Eagle Nebula to the gaggle of galaxies in the Hubble Deep Field. The book's secret: an ingenious and barely visible array of bumps.

"These images are really cultural icons now," says Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an astronomer who helped create the book. "The blind are the last community that has not had the chance to see them."

The publication of Touch the Universe is just the latest in a small but growing effort to bring the sighted world to the sightless.

Last month, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg unveiled a prototype electronic device that can scan maps or other elementary images and - using thousands of blunt pins - turn it into something a blind person can touch.

The American Printing House for the Blind, one of the country's largest Braille publishers, says a growing number of its 45,000 titles are incorporating tactile images.

Although words have been translated into Braille for nearly two centuries, images have lagged far behind. One reason is that making them tactile is difficult and expensive. Another is that educators and even scientists thought for many years that blind people couldn't understand perspective and other techniques used to represent the world on paper.

That bias has mostly eroded, says John M. Kennedy, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who has spent nearly three decades studying how blind people perceive and draw images.


"Many of the blind are deeply curious about the art world," says Kennedy, whose work has shown that blind people not only understand perspective but also use it in their drawings.

Someday "we'll have The New Yorker and even Playboy in Braille" - cartoons, centerfolds and all, he predicts.

Touch the Universe was written by Noreen Grice, a 39-year- old sighted astronomer at the Charles Hayden Planetarium in Boston. The idea for the book, she says, goes back to 1984, when she was a student at Boston University working part time at the planetarium.

One day a group from the nearby Perkins School for the Blind arrived in the darkened dome.

"Afterwards, I said, 'How'd you like the show?' And they said, 'It stinks. Astronomy stinks,'" Grice recalls. "I couldn't stop thinking about it."

She went to the school and looked at the library. None of the science books - mostly Isaac Asimov titles translated into Braille - had illustrations or pictures, she noticed.


That experience led to her first astronomy book for the blind. Touch the Stars was put together on her kitchen floor with string and acetate sheets. It was relatively primitive, she says today - mostly diagrams of the solar system.

But there had never been anything like it. When the book was published in 1990, it became a hit. Now in its fourth edition, it is used as a text by schools.

"Our problem is keeping it in stock," says Diane Croft of National Braille Press, the book's publisher.

Beck-Winchatz, a DePaul University astronomer who studies quasars with the Hubble telescope, spotted a copy of Grice's book in the gift shop of a Chicago planetarium and immediately saw the potential. He called Grice and suggested creating a book.

Despite Grice's experience with the first book, translating the telescope's sublime visions of the universe for the fingertips turned out to be harder than she expected.

She devised a palette of textures. Squiggly lines are wisps of gas. A checkerboard signifies the Hubble's solar panel. Raised lines represent the color blue.


Not everything worked. Grice stamped every star with a single raised dot. When she handed out early drafts to students at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, "People felt it and said, 'What are all these A's?'"

She learned quickly: In Braille, a single raised dot represents the first letter of the alphabet.

She also realized that when it comes to tactile images, less is more. Sighted people who have brushed their fingertips across the pages can barely detect the subtle ridges, swirls and humps, feeling just a slight tickle. But blind students testing the book were sometimes overwhelmed. Feeling one early bump-studded image, they said, "We can't find the picture."

After revisions, it became clear that the magic of Hubble was coming across. When one blind student felt the photo of NGC 2392 - nicknamed the Eskimo Nebula because it resembles a face bundled in a furry hood - he said, "It looks like a poached egg," Grice recalls. She looked at the image again and realized he was right.

Terry Garrett, a ninth-grader at the Colorado school, said that dragging his fingers over the rough swirl of Jupiter's famous Great Red Spot was a revelation. "I didn't know how big it was compared with the rest of the planet."

Benning Wentworth III, a science teacher at the school, hopes his students will be able to experience more images of the world.


"A lot of people say blind people can't see," he said. "They see just as well as we see. They just don't have vision."