Touch the Invisible Universe

Contributed by
Jan 15, 2008

Noreen Grice is a treasure.

A few years ago, she was running the planetarium show in a Boston planetarium when a group of blind kids came in to the theater. After the show was over, she asked them what they thought about it, and they said it "stunk".

Well, of course. But what can you do?

I suspect most of us would just feel badly about it and move on. But not Noreen. What she did was create a book about astronomy for the blind. Called Touch the Universe, it had images from Hubble Space Telescope overlaid with vacuum-formed plastic sheets that created an actual 3D version of the image, so that blind people could feel what the object looked like.


And now she has created her fifth book in the series, Touch the Invisible Sky (available soon from Ozone Publishing). It has images from Hubble, the Spitzer (infrared) Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

I have seen children use Noreen's books before, and the look on their faces when they can actually feel the stripes on Jupiter is... well, it's incredible. What Noreen has done is nothing less than open the door on astronomy for an entire segment of the population that had been excluded. She's a hero.

Watch this embedded video (click on it to start it) to get a taste of what this incredible woman is about (if it doesn't play, try the version at the Newswise or the Hubble press release).

I can't help but think of the central irony of this book: it's created for people who are visually impaired, but it shows images from the invisible part of the electromagnetic spectrum: infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays... light that none of us can see. In X-rays, we are all of us blind. We need very fancy and expensive telescopes to be able to detect this form of light from astronomical objects at all.

It's a message I think we should all be reminded of every now and again.

I had nothing at all to do with this book, but I've met Noreen a few times, and for some silly reason that makes me all sorts of proud. Several of my friends were involved in this and Noreen's other projects as well, so I would like to thank Simon Steele, Doris Daou, Skip Barker (I remember talking to Skip about the first book, and he said he had to help her do this, and I was never prouder of him), Steve Maran, Ray Villard, and Lynn Cominsky for their work with Noreen.

Good on all of you.

Update: Just a few minutes after I posted this, the (Hubble) Space Telescope Science Institute posted a press release about it.

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