This March 9, 2016 file photo shows a total solar eclipse in Belitung, Indonesia. Wyoming state tourism officials say the solar eclipse passing over the entire length of Wyoming in August could give the state economy a much needed boost.

Credit: File/AP Photo

How One Astrophysicist Is Helping The Blind 'See' Monday's Solar Eclipse

August 16, 2017

Few things rouse our curiosity here like the wonders of outer space, so how could we not address Monday’s big event – a total eclipse of the sun – the first one visible from the continental US in almost 40 years. It promises to be a spectacular sight. So what about the millions of people here in the US who are blind or have significant vision loss?

That’s where Dr. Henry Winter comes in.

"I am not an expert on accessibility," said the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory scientist. "I am an expert on solar physics and magneto hydrodynamics in conjunction with kinematic particle dynamics equations."

If that sounds a bit esoteric that’s because it is. But Winter has also made a career of turning difficult, dry research data into tangible, accessible things – like spectacular solar images on enormous LCD screens and interactive museum exhibitions.

"And that comes from a deep, deep belief that science is for everybody and that’s 'capital E' everybody," he explained.

Last year, Winter found himself chatting with a friend who’s been blind since birth. And given his deep knowledge of all things solar, she asked him to describe for her what a solar eclipse is like.

"I was caught so flat-footed," he said. "I didn’t have the vocabulary to express light and dark and day becoming night. All these things were just not in her lexicon."

Then he recalled a story he’d once heard from a colleague about how, during a solar eclipse, crickets began chirping when the sky darkened and stopped when the sun remerged -- like a switch going on and off.

"And that was something that she thought was interesting and was cool" he said. "Because those were experiences that she was used to."

Winter walked away determined to offer the blind and visually-impaired among his “capital E” everybody a better way to experience the upcoming eclipse: before, during and after.

So he assembled a team and started working on an app.

"The entire point of this app is to allow the user to independently explore the eclipse on their own without the need of anyone who’s sighted," said Winter.

The app, called Eclipse Soundscapes, is brimming with eclipse info. Thanks to GPS, it will know precisely when the eclipse will start and how long it will last, wherever you are. Notifications will count users down to the start and – thanks to a partnership with WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media – the app will launch a real-time, illustrative audio description of the cosmic show.

It will be a guided tour of what’s going on with the eclipse, what sighted people are seeing, as they’re seeing it. 

As for a before-eclipse experience? Well, eclipses have reliable, unique phases. And Winter hopes, in the leadup, users will take advantage of a series of interactive images of those phases that offer the visually-impaired a way to “hear” what millions of people will see.

"As your finger explores an image, you will hear a changing of tones that corresponds to the change of light and dark and color," he explained, as I dragged my finger across a detailed image of an eclipse on a smartphone.

And Winter figured that if they could let people to “hear” an eclipse, why not try and help them feel it too?

"We use the speaker of your device to actually shake your device, rumble it, so that you get this haptic, tactile, feedback from your device – you can feel it."

As for an after-eclipse experience? That cricket story has always stuck with Winter. And so the app will allow people everywhere to upload audio recordings whether they are capturing the quieting of birds in rural Colorado, or the "oohing and ahhing" of a crowd in downtown Chicago.  

The crowdsourced audio will be bolstered by professional recordings made across the whole of the continental US. 

"The National Park Service is going to have 16 locations where they record the changing wildlife landscapes in our National Parks," said Winter.

Those soundscapes will be available in the days following Monday’s eclipse. And Winter has a feeling they won’t just appeal to the blind and visually impaired, But also to scientists, nature enthusiasts, curiosity seekers, artists, kids. In short, “capital E” everyone. 

If there is something that has recently roused your curiosity, let The Curiosity Desk know. We might just look into it for you. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dr. Winter works for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He is employed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.


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