How sounds can turn us on to the wonders of the universe

In the cavernous grand ballroom of the Seattle Convention Center, Sarah Kane stood in front of an oversize computer monitor, methodically reconstructing the life history of the Milky Way. Waving her shock of long white hair as she talked (“I’m easy to spot from a distance,” she joked), she outlined the “Hunt for Galactic Fossils,”…
How sounds can turn us on to the wonders of the universe

Wanda Díaz-Merced is probably the world’s best-known BVI astronomer. But her career illustrates the magnitude of the challenges. She gradually lost her eyesight in her adolescence and early adulthood. Though she initially wondered whether she would be able to continue her studies, she persisted, and in 2005 she got an internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where she ended up collaborating with the computer scientist Robert Candey to develop data-sonification tools. Since then, she has continued her work at NASA, the University of Glasgow, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the European Gravitational Observatory, the Astroparticle and Cosmology Laboratory in Paris, and the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in Puerto Rico. At every step, she’s had to make her own way. “I’ve found sonification useful for all the data sets I’ve been able to analyze, from the solar wind to cosmic rays, radio astronomy, and x-ray data, but the accessibility of the databases is really bad,” she says. “Proposals for mainstreaming sonification are never approved—at least not the ones I have written.”

Jenn Kotler, a user experience designer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), became obsessed with this problem after hearing a lecture by Garry Foran, a blind chemist who reinvented himself as an astronomer using early sonification tools. Kotler wondered if she could do better and, in collaboration with two colleagues, applied for a grant from STScI to develop a dedicated kit for converting astronomical data into sound. They were funded, and in 2020, just as the covid pandemic began, Kotler and company began building what became Astronify. 

“Our goal with Astronify was to have a tool that allows people to write scripts, pull in the data they’re interested in, and sonify it according to their own parameters,” Kotler says. One of the simplest applications would be to translate data indicating the change in brightness of an object, such as when a planet passes in front of a distant star, with decreased brightness expressed as lower pitch. After hearing concerns about the lack of standards on what different types of sounds should indicate, Kotler worked with a panel of blind and visually impaired test users. “As soon as we started developing Astronify, we wanted them involved,” she says. It was the kind of community input that had mostly been lacking in earlier, outreach-oriented sonifications designed by sighted researchers and primarily aimed at sighted users. 

Astronify is now a complete, freely available open-source package. So far its user base is tiny (fewer than 50 people, according to Kotler), but she sees Astronify as a crucial step toward much broader accessibility in science. “It’s still so early with sonification, and frankly not enough actual research is being done about how best to use it,” she says.

In principle, astronomy could be an exceptionally accessible field, because it relies so heavily on pure data. Even so, only a handful of BVI astronomers have managed to break past the barriers.

One of her goals is to expand her sonification effort to create auditory “thumbnails” of all the different types of data stored in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes, a super-repository that includes results from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes along with many other missions and data archives. Making that collection searchable via sound would greatly improve the accessibility of a leading data science repository, Kotler notes, and would establish a template for other fields to follow.

Kotler also shares ideas with like-minded researchers and data scientists (such as James Trayford at the University of Portsmouth, who has collaborated with Bonne on a sonification package called STRAUSS) through a three-year-old international organization called Sonification World Chat. Arcand participates as well, seeking ways to apply the intuitive nature of her cosmic outreach to the harder task of making research data accessible to the BVI community. She notes that sonification is especially useful for interpreting any measurement that changes over time—a type of data that exists in pretty much every research field. “Astronomy is the main chunk of folks in the chat, but there are people from geology, oceanography, and climate change too,” she says.