Touching the Universe – seeing differently

Posted 22 Sep, 2022

A critical part of the First Light Project is our commitment to make the experience accessible for as wide an audience as possible – ‘Space for everyone’ is key to our mission and values.

Working in an area of science where so much emphasis is on dramatic and beautiful visual images, viewed perhaps by putting your eye to the end of a telescope, this presents a challenge – without relying on sight, how can this information be shared effectively?

Within our new First Light exhibition we’ve included three astronomical tactile images that feature in the story of how Jodrell Bank Observatory began. These were inspired by work done previously with astronomer Nic Bonne, of the Tactile Universe project which aims to engage the visually impaired (VI) community with current astrophysics research using 3D printed tactile images. During 2019 Nic worked with our team to help us learn about audio description techniques and during bluedot (2019) Nic joined us to offer stargazing with a difference – using tactile images of objects in the night sky.

image Tactile stargazing alongside viewing through optical telescopes at bluedot 2019

The tactile images for the First Light exhibition show the Moon, a meteor shower and the Andromeda galaxy – all objects important to the history of Jodrell Bank. Prototypes were created in March and we set off to test them with Bury teacher, Carol Prescott and her student Alisha Sadique and colleague Bryony Fielding, both of whom are visually impaired. The session was invaluable – we learned how much skill and concentration is required to read the images through touch, and Alisha and Bryony offered essential guidance as to how to improve them – using boundaries to denote the edges of the images, keeping them clear and uncluttered to focus on the most important features. We would like to thank Alisa, Bryony and Carol for their time and patience and also Paula Pinder who provided the braille translation. We are deeply grateful for their support in helping us to develop a much improved exhibit, providing a better experience for a wider audience.

The exhibit can be found within our First Light Pavilion, where the exhibition space is dominated by huge sections of the original reflecting surface of the huge Lovell Telescope, the rough, steel surface of which can be touched. An evocative ‘soundscape’ immerses the visitor in the experience, creating a sense of being almost ‘within’ the telescope dish itself. The exhibition is presented in ‘chapters’ which have an audio narration to take visitors through the story.

 During lockdown members of our team learned BSL online from home and we have plans to introduce an audio tour of the Solar System in the Space Dome- all part of our plan to make the experience of the site accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

An interesting point is that ‘seeing differently’ in a sense encapsulates the story of Jodrell Bank – the place where scientists and engineers learned how to see parts of the universe which our eyes can’t detect, using their ingenuity to develop the techniques of radio astronomy in the 1940s and 50s to view the invisible universe. We continue in this tradition to think differently to achieve our mission ‘space for everyone’.

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