Image courtesy of UNOOSA
When we think about space, many of us will think of awe-inspiring images of astronomical phenomena, like those recently captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Images of space inspire us, inform our understanding of the cosmos, and are an important part of the toolkit for science educators and communicators.
However, for some people these images are impossible to access. For people who are blind or visually impaired (BVI), there are significant barriers to accessing space sciences, whether as a professional scientist, educator, or an interested member of the public.
This summer, Alice Oates, one of the Society’s Collaborative Doctoral Programme PhD students, undertook a three month internship with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) on their Space for Persons with Disabilities project. Her work at UNOOSA was aimed at addressing the exclusion of BVI people from space sciences via the use of sonification – a method in which sound is used to interpret, analyse and communicate data. Sonification has powerful potential for both expanding analysis methods for the big, noisy data sets commonly used in space sciences, and for increasing equitable access to space sciences.
Sonification has advantages for all researchers, drawing on our capacity for sound interpretation to address some of the challenges of data analysis in space science. For example, the human ability to selectively focus on certain sounds in noisy environments – the so-called cocktail party effect – can be applied to analysis of complex, multi-dimensional, noisy data sets. But efforts to bring sonification into the mainstream face multiple challenges, from standardisation of methods to changing attitudes within higher education and research institutions.
Alice’s work involved speaking to members of the space science community who work with sonification to understand its current status and use within space science, and the opportunities and challenges for future use. She produced a soon-to-be-published report which will summarise these questions and make recommendations for decision-makers to help create a more equitable future in space science. Earlier this week, Alice also participated in a UNOOSA webinar on sonification, which is available to watch here.
If you are interested in learning more about sonification, watch this TEDTalk from Wanda Diaz-Merced, a blind astronomer whose pioneering work is central to the development of sonification for use in space science.
Find out more about Collaborative Doctoral Programme studentships and other research opportunities related to the Society’s Collections.