Listen to the stars!

This 3rd December marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a UN initiative to create a more inclusive and equitable world for persons with disabilities. On this occasion, DiscovHER puts the spotlight on Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced, a talented and passionate astrophysicist who refused to give up her career after losing her sight. She developed a way of analysing astrophysical data using sound, replacing the visual charts most scientists rely on with a new way of searching for patterns and irregularities in large sets of data.

Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced has been fascinated by the night sky and what lies beyond ever since she was a little girl, spending hours playing space explorers with her sister in their home in Gurabo, Puerto Rico. She went to university to study astrophysics, but disaster seemed to strike in her early twenties when a prolonged illness led her to lose her sight. Her advisors doubted she would be able to continue her studies in this domain that has always been perceived as highly visual. How could she continue analysing data from space if she could no longer see bars and charts?


A summer internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, designed for people with disabilities, helped Dr. Diaz Merced to understand that she could continue her work: she would just have to think outside the box. If visual representations of astrophysical data were just that – representations of numbers – was it possible that these data could be represented in ways that visually impaired scientists would be able to perceive? For Dr. Diaz Merced, there was a way, and that way involved sound.


With the help of her colleagues, Dr. Diaz Merced developed a method to turn large and complex data sets into audio representations, through a process called sonification. The numbers would be reproduced as sounds, with differences in pitch, volume and rhythm indicating variations in value. As she had also studied computer science, she was able to develop a number of applications for the conversion of numerical data into sound. This allows her to study the gamma and x-ray electromagnetic waves emitted by stars during periods of violent change, such as supernovas. Dr. Diaz Merced is listening to the stars.


The development of sonification by Dr. Diaz Merced has provided a way for visually impaired scientists to analyse data in ways previously thought impossible. But it has also done something else, by providing able-bodied scientists with new tools to explore data that allow them to build a more complete picture of complex phenomena. Simply put, in certain cases sonification allows researchers to hear things that can’t be seen. The current methods of representing complex data through visual graphs come up short when faced with the limits of spatial resolution and the human eye. Sonification gives scientists more than one string to their bow by helping them to avoid missing data that cannot be easily visualised.


Dr. Diaz Merced dreams of a world where scientists with disabilities have the opportunity to fully fulfil their potential. “As a visually impaired scientist, I daydream about not being underestimated,” she explained in a blog post in the Scientific American. “I wish for people to regard those with disabilities (or other learning styles, as I prefer to call it) as capable of contributing to my field (any field!) at the same level as their sighted peers.”


To find out more about sonification, listen to Dr. Diaz Merced’s TED Talk here, and let us know what you think @4womeninscience.

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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