Date: April 25, 2012

Title: Encore: You Can Do Astronomy

Podcaster: Carolyn Collins Petersen

Organization: Loch Ness Productions

Links: Loch Ness Productions (
Music by Geodesium (

This podcast originally aired on January 14th, 2010:

Description: TheSpacewriter talks with friend and colleague Noreen Grice, president of You Can Do Astronomy (, a company that creates astronomy outreach material for low-vision and blind people interested in the subject.

Bio: Carolyn Collins Petersen is a science writer and show producer for Loch Ness Productions, a company that creates astronomy documentaries and other materials. She works with planetariums, science centers, and observatories on products that explain astronomy and space science to the public. She is currently working on a new planetarium show, as well as an exhibit for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She wrote the Griffith Observatory astronomy exhibits in Los Angeles and the California’s Altered State climate change exhibits for San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. She has co-authored several astronomy books, written many astronomy articles, and is currently working on a new documentary show for fulldome theaters, a vodcast series for MIT’s Haystack Observatory, and a podcast series for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Sponsor: This episode of “365 days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — NO ONE. Please consider sponsoring a day or two in 2012 so we can continue to bring you daily “infotainment”.

Hi, I’m Carolyn Collins Petersen — the spacewriter. I spent the first week of January 2010 attending the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society. This is one of those meetings where there is so much information flowing from astronomers, that it feels like I’m standing under a firehose trying to take a drink.

We learn a lot about the latest and greatest in science results from the world’s observatories and astronomers. It’s a fascinating time, and I always wish that people who come from different walks of life and professions could come and hear these talks.
Bringing astronomy to the general public is the job of science educators – and people like me who popularize science for everybody. But, it’s not completely about data and results at these meetings. We also learn about how astronomers and space scientists and astronauts are showing people the universe through lectures and classroom activities. However, even with the outreach we do, there are always segments of the population that we don’t reach as well as we could.

Just as astronomers sense the universe in different wavelengths with specialized instruments, educators and museum guides and planetarium lecturers, for example, take many different tracks to teaching astronomy and space science. But, what do you do if members of your audience have limited or low vision, or are hearing impaired? That’s the question that confronted Noreen Grice– an old planetarium colleague of mine– and president of You Can Do Astronomy after she talked with a group of visually impaired visitors to the Boston Museum of Science. The result of her conversation led to the creation of a series of books and products that are designd to bring the universe to these visitors.

It was a great experience to talk with Noreen at the AAS meeting, where she was presenting her work to astronomers. She’s really broadening the universe for people who don’t sense the cosmos the way that many of us do.

Noreen, what prompted you to make materials for these visitors?

NOREEN: You know, it really went back to 1984, when I was doing a planetarium show at the Boston Museum of Science, and there were some blind students in line, and I didn’t know what to do. And, I asked the manager who was working with me, “What should we do?” And he said. “Ah, just help them to their seats. That’s all you have to do”

So, I did that. And then, I went to the console to welcome everyone to the planetarium, and press the button to start the show. It was an automated show. And at the end of the show, it was my job to say, “Well, thank you very much for visiting the planetarium.”

But during the show, I was watching that group of people, and I just wondered what they thought. So, at the end of the show when everyone had to exit past the console, the group came around. And, I came around the other side and I asked them how they liked the show. And they told me, “It stunk.” And that was not what I was expecting to hear, and that made me feel really bad. And it made me start thinking about, well, astronomy wasn’t really very accessible. And the planetarium wasn’t very accessible. And how could I make it accessible. I didn’t really know what to do. But, I thought, “I’m gonna try.” And that’s what I did.

CCP: So, what was the first product you came up with?

NOREEN: I sat at my desk hand-etching plastic sheets, and I made constellation figures to go along with all the planetarium shows, because that was the first thing I wanted to do was make the different shows accessible. And, that took me quite a while. It wasn’t that easy. And my Ursa Majors weren’t very good at first – they kinda looked like mice. But, I got a little better. And then, after I had done pictures for all the shows, then I actually made a Museum of Science Braille map. It took a month to make it, and then somebody took it. So, I had to make another one.

You know, I started thinking about how to expand that and that actually let to my first book, “Touch the Stars.”

CCP: So, I’m holding a page from one of your books here that says, “Comparison of a prominence and our Earth.” Describe what this looks like.

NOREEN: Well, it’s actually a page from “Touch the Sun” – a NASA Braille book. The picture is printed on sort of a vinyl plastic, and it’s kind of red and orange and there’s a quarter section of the Sun with a very rippled texture on it. And that’s supposed to be bubbling gases. And, then there’s this big prominence shooting out on the lower section, and then there’s this small dot with a picture of the Earth on it, comparing the size of the Earth to the prominence. So, it makes you feel very small.

CCP: So, how does the page feel?

NOREEN: Actually, the prominence has a series of very fine, parallel lines. The Sun has a rough feel to it, and that’s sort of the bubbling gases. And then, the Earth is a raised dot which is about the size of an eraser head.

CCP: And along the top, you have the words in Braille, as well.

NOREEN: That’s right. It says “Comparison of a prominence and our Earth” in print. And then right below it is Braille, so you can look at the picture – it’s in color – or you can feel the Braille and feel the picture. So, you can see by your eyes or you can see by your fingertips in your mind’s eye.

CCP: Okay, and so if you were in the planetarium and you were using this, you’d be feeling this as the narration goes along.

NOREEN: That’s right. I mean, over the years, I’ve made different pictures to go along with all the planetarium shows, and the pictures come up in order of the topics in the planetarium. So, if we were doing a show about the Sun and then we were talking about prominences, then this picture would come up. And then, the next picture in the series would be of the next topic – which might be sunspots.

My first, “Touch the Stars” came out in 1990. It was published by the Museum of Science and then, it sold out—which was great. And then, in1995 we printed a second addition – which had an appendix because I had been adding pictures—as I made planetarium shows, I’d create new pictures. So, I sort of had a new library of pictures that became the appendix. So, we printed 400 copies of the second edition, which sold out right away because the School for the Blind bought them all.

And, then the third edition of “Touch the Stars” came out in 1998, and at that point, a professor from De Paul University, Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, saw “Touch the Stars” in a bookstore in Chicago. And, he contacted me and said, “It’s too bad there isn’t something like that for the Hubble Space Telescope.”

And, that led to “Touch The Universe” – a NASA Braille book of astronomy, all about the Hubble Space Telescope.

CCP: Wow. So, how many books do you have out now?

NOREEN: Well, let’s see… “Touch the Stars”… “Touch the Universe”… “Touch the Sun”… “The Little Moon Phase Book”… “Touch the Invisible Sky” and I just did the tactile graphics for a NASA book called “Touch the Earth.”

CCP: So, are these quite widely used now?

NOREEN: Yeah, actually, what’s really nice is originally I started making the books to make astronomy accessible to the blind, and I was just doing raised – basically it was raised line drawings. Once I started with the NASA books – all the pictures are in color, and also raised up. So, they’re being used by sighted students, low-vision students, and blind students. And, that’s important, because in the past, there have been Braille books that just have Braille that’s just for blind students, and everybody else gets, you know, the really nice versions. And I think that just separates people. And, that’s not a good thing. But, if you can combine the print, the Braille, the texture, all in one, then everybody can use the same material together and I think that brings people together. I think that’s the right way to go.

I mean, there’s people who are sighted, but may be dyslexic, people who learn best by touch. There are people who just like to touch things, there’s people with low vision. There are a lot of blind students that have come to me at the National Federation of the Blind conventions and they have said, “I’m gonna be a space scientist. I’m gonna be an astronaut. And I know I can do it. And somebody gave me “Touch the Stars” when I was little.””

CCP: So, what’s your next project, now?

NOREEN: Well, you know I’ve been doing a lot of different NASA projects. We just completed a tactile image of the Carina Nebula with the Space Telescope Science Institute. And, we have a website on it’s this tactile Carina Nebula. (Note: in the interview she says “” and it’s really the address above.) And, it has an audio tour of the picture, and you can E-mail in to get a copy of the picture. And, those kind of things lead to other projects. I just want to really continue working on these kind of projects, and making astronomy so much more interesting and accessible to people and, like I said, bringing more people in together.

CCP: Thanks for sitting down with me to talk with me, Noreen, about bringing astronomy to what has been a traditionally underserved part of our population.

NOREEN: Well, I hope that one day it’s not underserved – that we serve each other together.

CCP: If you’d like to learn more about You Can Do Astronomy and Noreen Grice’s work with these books, point your Web browser to and click on the “365 Days of Astronomy” tab. And, thanks for listening!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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