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They can’t see the total solar eclipse, but LightSound will help them hear it

On August 21, 2017, Kiki Smith’s teenage children giddily prepared to view the partial solar eclipse in Rochester, New York. As Mrs. Smith listened to her talk, she felt left out.

“I felt very alone,” she said. Ms. Smith was diagnosed with a degenerative disease when she was a child and lost the last of her vision in 2011. The local uproar surrounding the eclipse and the national media attention unexpectedly struck a chord with her.

The eclipse “was to experience a historic moment in the community, and I was not a part of that,” he said.

Ms. Smith, 52, who works for a community development organization in Rochester, decided to do things differently for the April 8 total eclipse that will pass through her city. She is helping organize a public meeting that prioritizes accessibility for people with vision loss. Her event will include specially designed devices called LightSound that translate changes in light intensity into musical tones, allowing blind and visually impaired people to listen as the sky darkens and then brightens again.

During this eclipse, Ms. Smith said, “I will be with the community. And I will have all these fabulous resources at my fingertips to experience what I felt I missed last time.”

People across the United States with limited vision or blindness will experience the eclipse with the help of about 900 LightSound devices distributed by a team led by Allyson Bieryla, an astronomer at Harvard University.

The instrument was developed in 2017 by Ms. Bieryla, director of the Harvard Astronomy Laboratory and Telescopes, and Wanda Díaz Merced, a blind astronomer who at the time worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

After learning about the needs of visually impaired astronomers, Bieryla equipped the lab he runs with a printer that creates three-dimensional tactile representations on heat-sensitive paper of images captured by telescopes. Dr. Díaz Merced had been conducting research using sonification for more than a decade, in which mathematical data is translated into sounds.

The two decided to create a device to sonify that summer’s eclipse. Daniel Davis, director of Harvard’s science demonstration laboratory, produced a prototype.

On August 21, as the total eclipse passed over his viewing site in Wyoming, Bieryla streamed the sound from the device over the Internet.

Dr. Díaz Merced was then in Cape Town as a researcher at the Office of Astronomy for Development. During the eclipse, he shared the broadcast with students from the Athlone School for the Blind.

“When they heard it, they jumped and applauded,” he said. “It was the first time they were able to hear such an event, so it was very significant.”

About the size of a paperback novel, LightSound contains a light sensor that measures the brightness of the sky in lux, or illuminance units. Inside the box, a code on a microcontroller board maps particular sounds to numerical lux ranges. A synth board then generates a flute sound for intense light, a clarinet sound that drops in pitch as the light fades, and a slow, percussive click during the darkness of totality. Listeners use headphones or a speaker to hear the device’s sonification.

Before the total solar eclipse that crossed Chile and Argentina on July 2, 2019, Bieryla’s team, funded by the International Astronomical Union, sent devices or their components to colleagues in both countries. At an event at the Santiago Planetarium, organizers connected a LightSound device to an amplification system so that more than 1,500 attendees, including blind people, could hear it.

“It is not dedicated only to people with visual disabilities,” said Paulina Troncoso, director of the university astronomy program at the Central University of the Coquimbo Region, who led the LightSound portion of that event. “It’s also for everyone.”

The team offers LightSound for free and has posted computer code and instructions for building the devices online. Ms. Bieryla’s group continues to modify the product to improve the user experience. For example, the 2017 prototype emitted a rather strident tone. In 2018, Sóley Hyman, then a Harvard student, redesigned the device to incorporate the synthesizer board and developed the code for its flute, clarinet, and click sounds.

One of Dr. Troncoso’s students experimented with reprogramming the board to use a stripped-down instrumental version of Daft Punk’s 1997 song “Around the World.” When the light dims, the synthesized instruments fade out one by one, leaving only the sound of the drum machine.

Last year, Bieryla invited Elliot Richards, a Harvard engineer, to redesign the device with a printed circuit board instead of a tangle of wires. The change makes building the devices much easier, and Bieryla and Hyman, now a graduate student at the University of Arizona, have taught volunteers how to solder and assemble the materials in several workshops.

Once people understand how LightSound makes the eclipse accessible, they are eager to help, Bieryla said.

“That’s been reassuring to me: the amount of work people have put into this project and the enthusiasm surrounding it,” he said.

On a warm Saturday in March, a dozen volunteers sat hunched over tables in a classroom at the Austin Nature and Science Center in Texas, using soldering irons to attach components to circuit boards. The pungent smell of hot metal wafted through the open door as the trill of a nightingale floated from a nearby tree. As the volunteers tested their finished devices, the overlapping notes of the flute and clarinet resembled the roar of an orchestra tuning up before a performance.

Mark Sullivan, who works as a welder, heard about the workshop through the local astronomy club and decided to help. Sullivan had witnessed the August 2017 total solar eclipse in Nashville.

People like him, who can see, “take for granted being able to look at the sun during the eclipse,” he said, adding, “You have to make sure everyone has the opportunity.”

Ms. Bieryla’s team received more than 2,500 requests for LightSound devices. She sent as many as she could to event organizers like Ms. Smith in Rochester; to libraries, museums, universities and senior centers; and schools for the blind.

In Austin, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired will host an “eclipse show” on April 8 with tactile eclipse diagrams and LightSound devices. Yuki Hatch, a Grade 12 student at the school, said the LightSound device means she won’t have to rely on her limited vision to experience the total eclipse.

Ms. Hatch loves astronomy and, in October, observed the annular eclipse that passed through Texas. But she only saw a point that dimmed and brightened.

LightSound “will actually give me more information than I can see with my eyes,” he said.

Ms. Hatch plans to pursue a degree in computer science and develop technology that NASA can use to send blind people to space.

When Ms. Smith was a freshman in college, she struggled through an astronomy course until her vision loss made it too difficult. The LightSound device signals an encouraging shift toward support and inclusion, she said.

Allowing those who can’t see an eclipse to hear it represents “an opportunity for kids to not give up on that kind of thing,” he added.