The University of Southampton

Sonification of stars helps visually-impaired make astrophysical discoveries

Published: 20 December 2018
Illustration
Dr Wanda Diaz-Merced and the SoundOne system

People living with blindness and vision loss will work alongside scientists to make astrophysical discoveries in a new project at the University of Southampton.

The creative project, led by Associate Professor Dr Poshak Gandhi from the School of Physics and Astronomy, will develop a computer package that presents numerical data as sound, helping people to explore astronomical surveys.

Researchers at Southampton will collaborate with blind astrophysicist Dr Wanda Diaz-Merced and the SoundOne system (soft developed in the Instituto de Tecnologias en Detección y Astropartículas-Mendoza, Argentina, under the support of CONICET), which builds upon her research on ‘sonic intuition’.

Dr Diaz-Merced’s system uses sound parameters to display and increase sensitivity to data attributes such as frequency and dynamic range. The resultant sound allows listeners to identify distinct features such as peaks and troughs, enabling them to find patterns that by nature are blind to the human eye.

“Time-domain astrophysics is one of the most exciting areas of research, generating regular headlines about black holes and exploding stars, however this topic can be heavily dependent upon visual perception,” Poshak explains. “Dr Diaz-Merced’s extraordinary work has developed new ways to observe and study the cosmos, and there is a great opportunity here to enhance accessibility to science.”

Transient discovery in astronomy traditionally involves taking sets of telescope images of the same region of sky, but separated in time, and searching for differences between them. Although a relatively simple procedure, algorithmic searches can often miss discoveries because of a number of issues, including confusion with nearby stars.

“The human ear is incredibly adept at picking out patterns and isolating features,” Poshak continues. “The best way to engage with data is to ‘play’ with it by engaging and exploring it, enabling one to make one’s own discoveries.”

Dr Diaz-Merced, who currently works for the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Office of Astronomy for Development in South Africa, will deliver a public lecture as part of the international collaboration covering multi-sensorial exploration that provide access to features by nature ambiguous to the human eye.

The Southampton project, which is funded by the University’s Public Engagement with Research (PER) programme and the Royal Astronomical Society, will also include an ‘Inspiring Stars’ exhibition focused on accessibility to science and encouraging young people to pursue their dreams.

A second PER project in Physics and Astronomy, led by Dr Sadie Jones, is set to engage young people in dark energy and supernova research at Southampton. Participants from a local YMCA youth club will produce weekly media clips inspired by research, culminating in a scientific poster on their work. The project is associated with the Soton Astrodome, an inflatable planetarium that introduces school children and the public to the wonders of astronomy.

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