Two days ago, I woke up blind. Couldn't open my eyes-- lids were fused shut. For that early morning hour, I had to question just what I would do as a blind astronomer.
I'd had blurry vision the night before, but this was still unexpected. Pragmatically, I found my way to a sink to try and flush out my eyes, get some vision back. To avoid false suspense-- I was able to see (mostly) in fairly short order. And I can safely assure you there is a huge emotional difference between 'no sight' and 'can see slightly'.
I fortunately have full sight now, thanks to medicine. But would I have had a future as a blind astronomer?
My PhD advisor, John Wallin, regularly runs telescope sessions for the blind. This is not as odd as it seems. The point of a telescope is to gather more light and bring the unseen to view. So if someone has only partial sight, what better tool than a telescope to let them see that which was previously out of their reach? On a night with a good moon and perhaps a planet or galaxy in view, he sets up scopes and leads visually impaired and legally blind people through the night sky.
Noreen Grice and Bernhard Beck-Winchatz made a book, 'Touch the Universe'-- an astronomy book for the blind. Marty Quinn created Walk on the Sun to let visitors translate STEREO sun data into sounds. Non-image measurements such as from in-situ radio or magnetometer instruments is now often put through 'sonification' to help show patterns in the data.
However, these are cases of sighted people assisting those with less or no vision. The question remains-- could I make a living as a blind astronomer? I wouldn't just lose access to direct visualization of the data. More important, I wouldn't be able to see the figures and graphs in journal articles. That is a great hindrance in research-- not being able to directly see the relationships within the data discovered by other scientists.
But then I went to look up details on a colleague, Courtney Smith at GSFC. She's at NASA GSFC and works on web accessibility, a good fit since she's a) smart, b) technical and c) blind. Favors the real to theory with that last bit. She also flies airplanes. Hmm. And in an excellent article mentioning her, "Not Just Taking Up Space", there are profiles on blind scientists, theorists, admins, project managers, all at NASA. Have been, for over 30 years.
Courtney Smith at her desk at Goddard Space Flight Center. Photo: American Foundation for the Blind.
History had answered my question decades before it ever crossed my mind. I'm a scientist because of my outlook, trainings and abilities, not my hardware. Not everybody wants to be a scientist, true. But anyone who wants to, can be.
Alex, the daytime astronomer