The University of Southampton

Researchers demonstrate multi-sensorial techniques that widen the diversity of engagement with astronomy

Published: 11 July 2019
Illustration
(l-r) Student John A. Paice, Dr Poshak Gandhi, Dr Wanda Diaz-Merced and postdoctoral researcher Dr Triana Almeyda prepare for the public lecture.

An inventive approach for sonifying the stars championed by a research collaboration at the University of Southampton has been presented in a public lecture at the Royal Astronomical Society.

Dr Wanda Díaz-Merced outlined the latest results from the promising technique of sonification, which turns large data sets into audible sound, creating possibilities for new astrophysical discoveries and potentially widening the diversity of engagement with astronomy.

The audience heard a sonified representation of whistler waves in the Earth’s atmosphere as Dr Díaz-Merced introduced published studies that demonstrate how sighted people’s research can be enhanced using multi-sensorial information, including sound. She then used her own voice to sonify data from a recent study on an enigmatic growing black hole.

Pre and post audience feedback revealed a positive response to the technique, with an increasing number underlining the potential for visually impaired people to make valuable contributions to scientific research. Dr Díaz-Merced developed sonification for astronomy after losing her sight as an undergraduate and is advancing the innovation through a partnership with Southampton’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

Dr Poshak Gandhi, Sonifying the Cosmos Project Lead, explains: “Astronomy is undergoing a revolution driven by the vast quantities of data available from our exploration of the cosmos, however its analysis is heavily dependent upon visual perception and thus excludes visually-impaired people. Sonification enables users to present any kind of numerical data as sound and the resulting sequences allow listeners to identify features such as transient peaks and pulses.

“The human ear is incredibly adept at picking out patterns and isolating features. Although astronomy is our testbed here, this has much wider applications for the development of multi-sensorial human-computer data interaction systems.”

The Royal Astronomical Society public lecture was held at Central London’s Burlington House, while highlighting the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) awareness activities for widening participation in astronomy.

The Southampton project, which is supported by the University’s Public Engagement with Research (PER) programme, builds upon Dr Diaz-Merced’s research on ‘sonic intuition’. Dr Díaz-Merced has drawn international praise, including an Estrella Luike trophy, for her research and has been working for the IAU’s Office of Astronomy for Development in South Africa. She was also named as a Trailblazing Woman of Science by the BBC in 2017.

The sonification software presented was developed in collaboration with Dr Beatriz García and Johanna Casado of the Instituto de Tecnologias en Detección y Astropartículas-Mendoza, Argentina, under the support of the nation’s National Scientific and Technological Research Council, CONICET.

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