BBC Radio 4 – The Blind Astronomer

Kate Molleson tells the story of Wanda Diaz-Merced and her pioneering work with sound.

This is the story, and the sound, of Puerto Rican scientist Wanda Díaz-Merced, who is revolutionising astronomy by turning data from space into audio that can be explored by ear.

This process, ‘sonification’, is not only making the universe accessible to people with visual disabilities, it takes advantage of the human ear’s ability to explore vast ranges of data and spot patterns that could be missed by other means. It’s already proved its worth scientifically, with discoveries being made that are complementary to those found by traditional analysis.

Growing up, Wanda was always focused on a career in science, but when she began losing her sight at university, she realised that most areas of science were becoming impossible for her.

An epiphany came when she encountered NASA’s Radio Jove and was able to hear the sound of radiation from the Sun. She knew immediately that this was her new direction, but also that if she wanted astronomy to develop into audio, she was going to have to make it happen herself.

Her drive and ambition led to her working with NASA, followed by a doctorate in computer science, so as to learn and experiment with creating tools that would allow astronomers to analyse data by simply listening to it.

Having achieved success and recognition for her work over several years, her next project takes her into one of the hottest areas of current astronomy, the hunt for gravitational waves. These tiny ripples in space-time were found for the first time only in 2015. As technology improves, more signals will be detected but these will be surrounded by masses of non-gravitational wave signals. The human ear is better than any computer at categorising these signals, so through a huge citizen science project, Reinforce, Wanda and her team aim to work with many thousands of volunteers to listen to and analyse reams of data, to help progress this new area of science.
The future, as Wanda says, is not just about sound, or vision, it is multisensory – the more senses we can use to explore the world, the more we discover.

Contributors to the programme are: Wanda Diaz Merced, Professor Steve Brewster (University of Glasgow), Professor Martin Hendry (University of Glasgow), Professor Katrien Kolenberg, and Grant Miller (Zooniverse/Oxford University).

Specially composed music: Thomas Hoey

Presenter: Kate Molleson

Producer: Anne McNaught

Source: BBC Radio 4 – The Blind Astronomer

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