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November 21, 2002

A hands-on universe: Braille book explores stars

From: Rocky Mountain News, CO
Nov. 21, 2002

By Jim Erickson, Rocky Mountain News

Trenton Matthews has never seen a star.

But when the 17-year-old Colorado Springs student closes his sightless eyes and guides his fingertips across the embossed photographs in a new astronomy book, the wonders of the universe come to life in his mind's eye.

"It's just amazing to me. The pictures are very terrific, actually," Matthews said of Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy.

"I've always liked astronomy, and I always wished I could see a star," said the junior at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. "But until now, there hasn't been any actual tactile way to see the universe."

Two years ago, Matthews and his classmates evaluated a prototype for the book's author, Noreen Grice of the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science. The students submitted recommendations and Grice revised the book, which will be released today at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore.

The biggest recommended change: simplify the images.

"A very common error is to try to make a tactile representation look like a visual image," said Benning Wentworth III, a science teacher and astronomy enthusiast at the Colorado Springs school.

"And when you do that, you end up having way too much information, and that was a lot of the problem," said Wentworth, who is attending the Baltimore ceremony with two of his students.

The 64-page book contains 14 large photographs taken by NASA's Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. Photos of planets, nebulae, galaxies and globular clusters are printed on heavy stock with raised patterns, similar to an embossed greeting card.

The raised patterns outline the object's shape and are imprinted with various symbols - X's, dots, circles, ovals - that identify colors, chemical elements, gas clouds, stars and jets of matter.

The symbols are defined in a legend printed in Braille, and each Hubble image is accompanied by explanatory text in Braille and large-type print.

DePaul University astronomer Bernhard Beck-Winchatz teamed up with Grice to produce the book with a $10,000 education grant from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope program.

"For the past 12 years, Hubble discoveries have not only rewritten the science textbooks, the stunning images from HST have also become a part of American culture," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.

"But while these images have wowed the world, until now, there was still one group - the blind - who could not share in this marvel," Weiler said.

Matthews said he's glad he and his classmates could contribute. But there's one question that's been bugging him.

"I just want to know where I can get a copy, because my mother's trying to buy it for me for Christmas," he said.

Touch the Universe can be purchased online from the National Academies Press for $28. Go to, or call (800) 624-6242.

"I can't emphasize enough how important Benning and his students were to this project," Beck-Winchatz said. "It wouldn't have been possible without them."

Copyright 2002, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.