The astronomer who gave voice to the Universe



By definition, science is governed by the scientific method. As in a trial, all the hypotheses we generate will be incorrect until proven otherwise, and the scientists’ job is precisely to provide experiments that can confirm or discard their conclusions. This method aims to provide objectivity to science, and not depend on the subjectivity of researchers but on real evidence that anyone can see if they spend time and effort.

But what if all scientists are biased? In the end, the results of our experiments will always be interpreted by our way of thinking and our senses. Perhaps someone who perceives the world in another way can bring new solutions or interpretations to known problems, creating experiments that would never occur to most scientists.

Unfortunately, this approach to research is unusual and the scientific community does not usually include people with functional diversity. Blind, deaf, or learning-impaired people must face a huge amount of obstacles in their path if they want to investigate and most of the time these obstacles will come from the lack of tools to work. We should only think about the disappointment of a blind person when, when introducing a scientific study on his computer to be interpreted aloud, he discovers that he is not able to express the mathematical equations correctly.

To promote the accessibility of scientific research, little by little better tools are developed, such as adapted facilities or better reading programs. Many times, these adaptations are not so complicated to achieve and depend on small design details, such as including a blinking light next to the beep of a machine to indicate that it has finished.

These tools are often considered as a method to open opportunities to a minority sector, but what if we could do better experiments with them? One of the best contributions in this direction comes from the hand of a scientist, Wanda Diaz Merced, creator of sonification, a tool that allows us to better study the universe if we close our eyes and start using our ears.

Learn to listen

Astronomy is based on understanding the universe through the data we can obtain from it. Our planet Earth is constantly bombarded by a wide variety of cosmic particles and waves, which we try to detect through increasingly precise detectors. Thanks to them, we can better understand the nature of gravity or how light works.

But the complicated part is not only to collect all this information, but to know how to interpret it. Astronomers spend most of their time using different algorithms and mathematical functions to shear each small piece of information through different graphs. For example, the microwave background radiation ends up becoming a graph that separates it into amplitude and frequency values, being able to check how fast the wave travels or its origin.

It was these mathematical tools that had an unexpected side effect: that astronomy is a visual science. It doesn’t matter if you receive the intensity of a distant star or the background noise of a black hole, it will always end up transforming into one or several processed graphics. It is not an intrinsically bad side effect, since these graphics are valuable, but you run the risk of accidentally ignoring some hidden pattern. If we want to check if something is missed, one possibility is to be able to study the original data and take advantage of the best anomaly detector at our disposal: the ear.

Although he thinks he has no musical ear, he has spent his entire life training his ear in the complicated task of detecting and isolating different sound frequencies, and he does it better than any current computer program. This intense training is important when it comes to detecting the small details of spoken language and allows you to be able to listen to a conversation from four different people in a noisy environment and practically without difficulty.

Astronomical data can represent different types of information, but it is possible to transform them into sound waves and see if we can detect any ignored pattern in our graphics. This concept is not so strange, since the beginning of modern astronomy was based more on the use of the ear than on sight. In 1933, astronomer Karl Jansky detected radio waves when he heard a small background noise he received on his antenna, something that could have been ignored in the final part of a graph.

Taking advantage of modern technology and the large amount of astronomical information to which I had access to work at NASA, the scientist Wanda Díaz Merced spent several years looking for the best way to translate this information into useful sound signals. The transformation is not limited to adapting the waves to the range of the human ear, but other non-wave related data, such as the luminosity of the stars, are translated into sounds with different rhythms or volumes. Díaz showed that sonification is able to improve our ability to detect complex anomalies, such as black holes, simply by wearing headphones and listening to the translated sounds.

His technique, called sonification, was published in his thesis in 2013 and since then it is being used in some astronomical institutes to listen to its results and find new interesting ideas. But if someone is taking better advantage of sonification it is their own inventor. And is that Diaz can see almost nothing.

She was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy while studying physics, a complication that progressively deteriorates the retina. While doing his research, he noticed how his vision was decreasing more and more, and nowadays he no longer sees with the left eye and the right eye only sees 3% on the periphery. For Díaz, sonification is not only a tool so that scientists do not depend only on their eyes when it comes to research, it is also their only window to the study of space.

The sonification has allowed improving the job opportunities of blind people in astronomy. Now they can have access to all astronomical data and even take advantage of their overtrained ear in detecting patterns and clues that seers do not notice, accustomed to depending too much on our vision.

Currently, there are only four blind astronomers in the world. But if we improve the research tools we will not only be able to investigate, but we can have access to new ways of studying the world. You just need to close your eyes and open your mind a little.

DON’T KEEP IT UP:

  • The sonification makes it possible to transform the different astronomical data into sound to detect anomalies, but then these must be investigated. Nowadays, blind scientists like Díaz can represent the information with graphs with relief that they can study through touch, but there is still a lot of work ahead.
  • We have been studying some types of waves through sound for decades, such as radio waves. The great advantage of sonification is that it allows other types of temporal data to be studied through sound, such as the luminosity of distant stars.

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