How Blind Astronomers Will Observe The Solar Eclipse On August 21
Nelson Régo On August 8, 2017
On August 21st, an eclipse will sweep across the United States, from
the redwood forests of Oregon to the shores of South Carolina.
Like millions of other people, Wanda Diaz Merced plans to observe the
August 21 total solar eclipse, when the moon’s shadow will sweep
across the sun and, for a few brief moments, coat parts of the United
States in darkness. But she won’t see it. She’ll hear it.
Diaz Merced, an astrophysicist, is blind, with just 3 percent of
peripheral vision in her right eye, and none in her left. She has been
working with a team at Harvard University to develop a program that
will convert sunlight into sound, allowing her to hear the solar
eclipse. The sound will be generated in real time, changing as the
dark silhouette of the moon appears over the face of the bright sun,
blocking its light. Diaz Merced will listen in real time, too—with her
students at the Athlone School for the Blind in Cape Town, South
Africa, where she teaches astronomy.
“It’s an experience of a lifetime, and they deserve the opportunity,”
Diaz Merced said.
To capture the auditory version of this astronomical event, the team
turned to a piece of technology measuring only a couple inches long:
the Arduino, a cheap microcomputer popular with tech-savvy, DIY
hobbyists. With a few attachments, Arduinos can be used to create all
kinds of electronic devices that interact with the physical world,
from the useful, like finger scanners that unlock garage doors, to the
silly, like motion-detecting squirt guns.
Diaz Merced’s collaborators equipped an Arduino with a light-detecting
sensor and speaker, and programmed it to convert light into a clicking
noise. The pace of the clicks varies with the intensity of the
sunlight hitting the sensor, speeding up as it strengthens and slowing
down as it dims. In the moments of totality, when the sun’s outer
atmosphere appears as a thin ring around the shadow of the moon, the
clicks will be a second or more apart.
Allyson Bieryla, an astronomy lab and telescope manager at Harvard,
will operate the Arduino from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, inside the path
of totality. She will stream the audio on a website online, which Diaz
Merced will open on her computer in Cape Town.
“It is important to use the sound in order to bring an experience that
will bring that same feeling to people who do not see.”
So far, Bieryla says, “the real challenge has been trying to find a
light sensor that’s sensitive enough to get the variation in the
eclipse.” In totality, the sun will appear about as bright as a full
moon at midnight. The team has tested the Arduino at night, under the
moonlight, to make sure it can pick up the faint luminosity.
Diaz Merced, a postdoctoral fellow at the Office of Astronomy for
Development in South Africa, was diagnosed with diabetes as a child.
In her early 20s, when she was studying physics at the University of
Puerto Rico, she was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, a
complication of the disease that destroys blood vessels in the retina.
Her vision began to deteriorate, and a failed laser surgery damaged
her retinas further, she said. By her late 20s, she was almost
completely blind. She recalls watching a partial solar eclipse in 1998
in Puerto Rico, when she still had some sight.
“I was able to experience the wonderfulness—of the sun being dark, of
having a black ball in the sky,” she said. “That is why it is
important to use the sound in order to bring an experience that will
bring that same feeling to people who do not see or are not visually
oriented.”
While Diaz Merced experiences the eclipse from a classroom in Cape
Town, Tim Doucette will observe the event at a campground in Nebraska,
smack-dab in the path of totality. Doucette is a computer programmer
by day and an amateur astronomer by night. He runs a small
observatory, Deep Sky Eye Observatory, near his home in Nova Scotia in
a sparsely populated area known for low light pollution and
star-studded night skies.
“It’s millions and millions of points of light. It’s like a tapestry
of diamonds against a velvety background.”
Doucette is legally blind, and has about 10 percent of his eyesight.
He had cataracts as a baby, a condition that clouds the lenses of the
eye. To treat the disease, doctors surgically removed the lenses,
leaving Doucette without the capacity to filter out certain
wavelengths. His eyes are sensitive to ultraviolet and infrared light,
and he wears sunglasses during the day to protect his retinas. Without
shades, Doucette said he can’t keep his eye open in the brightness of
day. But at night, his sensitivity becomes an advantage. With the help
of a telescope, Doucette can see the near-infrared light coming from
stars and other objects in the sky better than most people.
“My whole life, I’ve always been asking people for help, saying, ‘hey,
what do you see?’” Doucette said. “When I stargaze with people, the
tables are reversed.”
Doucette sees best at night, safe from the glare of the sun. He uses
starlight to guide him during the short walk from his observatory to
his home. “When I’m walking down the road, especially during the
summer months, the Milky Way is just this incredible painting going
from north to south,” he said. “It’s millions and millions of points
of light. It’s like a tapestry of diamonds against a velvety
background.”
Doucette, armed with his camera equipment, will observe the eclipse
with dozens of members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s
Halifax Center, an association of amateur and professional
astronomers. He has only witnessed partial solar eclipses in the past.
“It should be quite interesting to see what the effect is because of
my sensitivity,” he said. During totality, when day becomes night,
some objects in the sky may become visible, thanks to his sensitivity
to their light.
Doucette will wear eclipse sunglasses over his regular pair. Eclipse
glasses protect the eyes from sunlight so viewers can look directly at
it without hurting their eyes, and they can be bought online for a few
dollars. Doucette urged eclipse viewers to use them, citing stories
he’d heard of people looking at the sun during an eclipse and waking
up blind the next morning, their retinas burned. The shades are
necessary before and after totality, when the sun is only partially
eclipsed and a thin crescent shines with typical intensity.
“Once the eclipse is in totality for about two and a half minutes, I’m
told that it’s safe to take the glasses off, but I’m not willing to
risk it,” Doucette said. “I’ll still keep my sunglasses on either
way.”
http://solareclipsesoundscapes.org/

Source: The Atlantic
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