“I have been here for 11 years, and introducing students to the telescope doesn’t get old,” says Allyson Bieryla, manager of the Astronomy Lab and Clay Telescope. “When someone sees Saturn for the first time through the telescope and shouts, ‘No way. That’s a cartoon. That’s not real. That’s so cool!’ — that instant excitement is contagious. That shouldn’t be denied to anyone.”
Bieryla has, in fact, made the mission of accessibility and inclusivity a top priority, pioneering tools and redesigning space to help people with physical disabilities experience the wonders of astronomy. For instance, the lab uses a tactile printer to create a sort of topographical map of star systems that people can explore with their hands.
“Think of it like Braille,” Bieryla said. “The printer produces heat and, using special heat-sensitive paper, creates images that are raised so a student who can’t see the images can feel them and understand what other students are seeing.”
The printer represented the beginning of bigger efforts. With design help from Harvard science demonstrator Daniel Davis, Bieryla and Sóley Hyman ’19 built and distributed a device they created called LightSound. The devices use simple circuit board technology with sensors that convert light into sound — brighter light translates to higher pitch — to allow those with visual impairments to experience solar eclipses. The efforts of the Harvard team have been an extension of the work of the blind astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced, who pioneered “sonification” to turn data into sound. Much of Merced’s work took place at the Center for Astrophysics in 2014‒15.
The first version of the device, LightSound 1.0, was used for the Great American Eclipse in 2017. For the South American eclipse last month, Hyman and Bieryla redesigned the device as LightSound 2.0, with improved sensitivity and a wider variety of sounds. The lab received a grant from the International Astronomical Union to build and distribute about two dozen LightSounds. Bieryla and Hyman shipped the devices, which cost about $60 each to build, to Chile and Argentina so the visually impaired could experience the July 2 solar eclipse in the Southern Hemisphere.