Wanda Diaz Merced is a blind astronomer who hears the science of the stars

Wanda Diaz Merced is an astronomer at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Office for Astronomy Outreach in Mitaka, Japan. Diaz Merced is blind and uses a technique to transform data from astronomical surveys into sounds for analysis. Over at Nature, Elizabeth Gibney interviewed Merced about how “converting astronomical data into sound could bring discoveries that conventional techniques miss.” From Nature:

How did you begin your work with sonification?

Sonification has been around for a long time. In 1933, for example, US physicist Karl Jansky reported detecting the first radio waves from space, as an audible hiss in his antenna. But at some point, visualization came to dominate the way we interpret astrophysical data. When I was an intern at NASA in 2005, my mentor, Robert Candey, wanted me to create a prototype data analysis tool that would familiarize blind people with space-physics data. So we developed software that could map astronomical data into sound — its pitch, rhythm and volume. Then, in my 2013 PhD dissertation at the University of Glasgow, UK, I proved that it is useful….

Can you describe a real-world example?

There are many. Sonification can help us to study the habitability of an exoplanet, by understanding how much high-energy cosmic and solar rays interact with its magnetic field or atmosphere. Such interactions cause fluctuations of electromagnetic emission from that star system that vary in a way that relates to frequency . BBut because astronomers usually separate out different frequency components into many graphs, this is easy to miss. With sonification, we can listen to all the different frequencies together and pick out the signal from the noise.

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