The Universe, One Word at a Time

Title: Audio Description And Other Inclusive Resources In The Outreach Project Astroaccesible

Authors: Enrique Pérez-Montero, Celia Barnés-Castaño, Emilio García López-Caro

First Author’s Institution: Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía – CSIC, Glorieta de la Astronomía s/n, 18008, Granada, Spain

Status: To appear in “2nd Workshop on Astronomy Beyond the Common Senses (2022)” RevMexAA(SC) [closed access]

Most people see astronomy as a purely visual field–literally. Scientists observe planets or galaxies with a telescope, create colorful images, analyze plotted data, or study stars whizzing about in simulations. A group led by Dr. Enrique Pérez Montero, a scientist at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Spain, is trying to change this solely visual picture. Dr. Pérez Montero uses spectroscopy to study the interplay between massive stars and the interstellar medium, along with looking at surveys of star-forming galaxies. He is also visually impaired, and leads the project Astroaccessible, which aims to let blind and visually impaired (BVI) individuals experience and participate in astronomy through conferences, classes, and accessible resources that can help level the playing field between sighted and blind individuals.

While in-person outreach events are best-suited for introducing valuable resources such as high-contrast images, 3D printed sky maps, or hands-on models, the pandemic has pushed these kinds of opportunities into the virtual world of Zoom. Without specialized equipment, participants are no longer easily able to access these kinds of tactile resources. Astroaccessible’s project El Universo en palabras (The Universe in words) overcomes this barrier by instead letting participants hear the universe when touching it isn’t an option. 

The project’s main goal is to create audio descriptions (AD) of images featuring various well-known and popular astronomical objects, such as the Crab Nebula and Whirlpool Galaxy. Audio description isn’t a new concept–it’s been around since the 1990’s, and nowadays many streaming services like Netflix offer audio description for a selection of programming. For a movie or TV show, turning on AD adds extra narration in between dialogue that explains important visual elements on screen, such as how a character is moving or the arrangement of a room. While initially created to make audiovisual media more accessible to a BVI audience, AD can create a richer, more helpful experience for other users such as viewers who have trouble understanding emotion in facial expression, or a sighted viewer that might have missed an important background detail during a chaotic action scene.

Audio description also doesn’t have to be limited to TV shows or movies. The Astroaccessible team points out past studies that have found that AD in museums and live events have the potential to give every visitor an enriching experience. If you’re at an art or history museum, it might be overwhelming to look at a large, detailed painting all at once or figure out what parts of an ancient machine are used for. Having a guided audio description of where to look gives visitors a multisensory experience while also pointing out details they might not have noticed on their own, thereby giving them a more complete understanding and appreciation of the painting or artifact they are examining.

El Universo en palabras aims to create the same experience for viewers learning about the cosmos. Translation and Interpreting students working with both AD and astronomy outreach experts at the University of Granada took on the challenge of translating the visual details of complex deep-space objects into an audible, detailed description that is heard over a video showcasing each object. The astronomical image is not stagnant–the video pans around and zooms in and out, highlighting different parts of the object while describing its structure, color, and details, explaining the scientific significance of these features as well. This format provides a mental conception of the object and a helpful guide for interpreting what you are seeing–an audio “tour” breaking down each galaxy’s or nebula’s complex structure into bite-sized pieces. Students can also use these videos in parallel with any tactile resources that might be available, as well as with sonifications of these objects made by other outreach groups such as the nebulous Pillars of Creation or gas of the galaxy M87, host to the first-ever imaged black hole. The group has currently produced five videos of various Messier objects and aim to create many more in the future, hopefully also translated into other languages.

The majority of sighted astronomers can’t don space suits and fly through a nebula or star hop around a galaxy to learn about the universe. Instead, they use tools available to them to gather remote data and convert it into the medium that’s most natural to them–a picture or a graph. But groups like Astroaccessible show us that we don’t have to limit ourselves to displaying data this way–visuals shown in tandem with audio and tactile media can create a delightful accessible experience for everyone, no matter if you prefer to put your eye or ear to the cosmos.

Astrobite edited by Olivia Cooper

Featured image credit: Astroaccessible

About Katya Gozman

Hi! I’m a third year PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. I’m originally from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago and did my undergrad at the University of Chicago. There, my research primarily focused on gravitational lensing and galaxies while also dabbling in machine learning and neural networks. Nowadays I’m working on galaxy mergers and stellar halos, currently studying the spiral galaxy M94. I love doing astronomy outreach and frequently volunteer with a STEAM education non-profit in Wisconsin called Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM, as well as work at our on-campus observatory and planetarium.

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