Astronomy for the Visually Impaired

Visit to the Durr Family in Malmesbury,10 May 2014

In Die Burger of 21 April 2014 an article by Blanche de Vries titled “Seun met swak sig maak deurbraak” (Eng. Boy with poor sight makes a breakthrough) caught Lynnette’s eye and she filed it with the intention that we would try and include Pieter-Jans Durr in our outreach plans for 2014. Lady Luck was on our side because in the meantime, Dr Wanda Diaz-Merced, the blind astrophysicist from Puerto Rico, paid South Africa a visit, and was based at the International Astronomical Union’s Office for Development on the premises of the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town.

We mentioned Pieter-Jans to Wanda on Friday during discussions following her farewell lunch at the SAAO, and she expressed interest in meeting Pieter-Jans.  So when we arrived home, Lynnette set about contacting the Durr Family. There were five numbers listed for the surname Durr, but the very first number she tried turned out to be the jackpot: it was Pieter-Jans’s grandmother.  Wanda was due to address a combined parents and teachers meeting on Saturday morning at the Athlone School for the Blind in Bellville South but she would be finished by 10:30 or shortly afterward.  We picked her up shortly after 11:00 and headed for Malmesbury. It rained intermittently on the way to Malmesbury, but we arrived on time at the Durr residence where we were warmly welcomed by Mrs Marie Durr, Pieter-Jans’s mother.

While we waited for Pieter-Jans, Marie filled us in on the family background. Pieter-Jans is the youngest of four children and he and his two older sisters all suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, generally abbreviated to RP.  His eldest sister attended the Pioneer School in Worcester before transferring back to a mainstream school in Malmesbury to complete her high schooling.  She then went on to complete a BA (Law) degree at the University of Stellenbosch. The second daughter matriculated at the Pioneer School in Worcester earning a place amongst the top ten in the Western Province. She is currently working on a master’s degree in Psychology at the University of Stellenbosch.  Pieter-Jans’s brother has no visual impediment.  He is a very capable Rugby player and is currently completing a degree in Physiotherapy at the University of Stellenbosch. Pieter-Jans himself was until recently a pupil at the Pioneer School in Worcester, but in 2014 he had expressed the wish transfer to the Swartland High School in his hometown, Malmesbury.  By the time Wanda had related her background to Marie and we had finished the coffee and melktert, Pieter-Jans arrived.

Pieter-Jans admitted to knowing very little about astronomy, an omission which Wanda soon set about correcting with the aid of the posters from the “Touch the Invisible Sky” and “From the Earth to the Sky” series.  She also presented him with the material she had brought along specifically to give to him.  Wanda soon had Pieter-Jans completely at his ease, and before long they were engaged in a lively discussion about the posters which Pieter-Jans eagerly examined.  Marie showed a keen interest in the posters and the discussion too, especially when Wanda pointed out the fact that only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum was visible to sighted people. By far the greater part had to be interpreted using instruments in any case, which is why she promotes converting signals to sound as a means for visually impaired people to participate in astronomy, because of their more acute hearing.

Peter-Jans with one of the posters Wande gave him
Peter-Jans with one of the posters Wande gave him
Wanda and Pieter-Jans warming to the topic of solar weather.
Wanda and Pieter-Jans warming to the topic of solar weather
Wanda and Marie exchange views while Pieter-Jans studies one of the TOuch the Invisible Universe posters
Wanda and Marie exchange views while Pieter-Jans studies one of the “Touch the Invisible Sky” posters
Marie and Pieter-Jans paying close attention while Wanda explains some finer points
Marie and Pieter-Jans paying close attention while Wanda explains some finer points

By the time Pieter-Jans’s father, John, arrived we were ready for the second round of coffee, melktert and rusks. John slipped effortlessly into the discussions and in-between talking, and sipping his coffee also took time to look at the posters.  After coffee, John excused himself as he had promised to attend a rugby match in which his other son was playing.  Before he left though we did take a photograph of the family.

Wanda, Marie, Pieter-Jans, myself and John on the extreme right.  I am holding one of the "Touch the Invisible Universe" posters while John sips his coffee and looks at one of the "From the Earth to the Sky" posters
Wanda, Marie, Pieter-Jans, myself and John on the extreme right. I am holding one of the “Touch the Invisible Sky” posters while John sips his coffee and looks at one of the “From the Earth to the Sky” posters
John attending to the fire Wanda, Marie and Pieter-Jans with one of the "Touch the Invisible Sky" posters
John attending to the fire Wanda, Marie and Pieter-Jans with one of teh “Touch the Invisible Sky” posters

Lynnette and I would like to thank Marie and John for welcoming us, total strangers, into their home and on such short notice too. We intend going back as soon as possible to visit Pieter-Jans and to expand his astronomy knowledge.  On subsequent visits, we also hope to discuss astronomy with his classmates and his science teacher.

Wanda and Pieter-Jans holding one of the "From the Earth to the Sky" posters
Wanda and Pieter-Jans holding one of the “From the Earth to the Sky” posters
The Durr family with Wanda: John on the left, Wanda, Pieter-Jans and Marie on the right
Wanda with the The Durr family of Malmesbury: John on the left, Wanda, Pieter-Jans and Marie on the right

Athlone School for the Blind

Athlone School for the Blind
Day three of National Science Week 2013 at the Bellville Public Library

On day three of our recent National Science Week nine day scienceathon (a phrase coined by Evan) Lynnette, Auke and I had the privilege of presenting a short astronomy program to a group of 43 learners and their four teachers from the Athlone School for the Blind at the Bellville Public Library.

Teachers and staff of the Bellville Public Library serving soup and sandwiches to the learners from the Athlone School for the Blind. Some of the Chandra Braille posters are in the tables

At the heart of the presentation were the fantastic Braille astronomy pictures with their accompanying Braille explanations, courtesy of Kimberly Kowal Arcand.  Kimberly is part of the NASA/Chandra X-ray telescope’s educational project to take astronomy to the visually impaired and she is based at Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

WOW! I didn’t know it was that hot.


Can you believe how big and far away it is!

The group of learners represented a spectrum of visually impaired, multiply disabled and blind learners.  Not all the learners had mastered the Braille system, so we split the group.  While the teachers assisted those who could read Braille with the printed material, I gave a short talk to the others on the importance of space research and also talked about the efforts in the United States to give visually impaired people access to astronomy.

DSC_0027_NSW_BellBib_D1_ASB_Brailleposters_Ki nders
Hey guys, this is way cool. How do they know all this stuff?
So if we are at the bottom we are standing on our heads?
Yes, we can ask Edward and Lynnette to come to the school and tell us more about all this.
This is crazy stuff, man, Cool but really crazy!

The expressions of wonder and amazement on the faces of the learners reading the printed material and experiencing the Braille images and the information they contained for the first was, to say the very least, an exceptionally rewarding experience.  Some of these expressions have been captured in the photographs Lynnette took and it is a pity that we have no actual recording of the enthusiastic comments passed by the learners.

Perhaps the most poignant experience was having blind learners request that they be photographed with us and knowing that they would never see the photograph.  Many of the others also wanted to be on these photos too, but it was the requests from the blind ones that we found particularly touching.

The group wanting to be photographed got larger and larger with every click of the shutter.
Lynnette had her own supporters group and the lad in red was especially keen to be in on the action.
The boy in the middle requested to be photographed with me. He is totally blind yet his brother has perfectly normal sight. Life really is not fair.



Report back on the 2013 National Science Week

National Science Week: July 27th to August 04th at various venues.

The fickle Cape winter weather was very kind to us and it only rained on our parade on the first two days: Saturday the 27th and Sunday the 28th of July at Zevenwacht Mall in Kuils River.  The rest of the week the weather was brilliant.  In fact, it was almost too brilliant, because we found it very hot work standing in the unseasonably hot sunshine trying to entice people to look through a telescope at the sun.

We had our fair share of amusing incidents during the week.  When trying to get people to come and look at the Sun, some of them just gave us odd looks, while others muttered things like “Not today” or “I don’t have my sunglasses” or “I can see it”.  Then there were those that looked up at the Sun, looked at us, looked back at the Sun and shook their heads as they walked away.

There was one person who actually went down on his knees and tried to look through the Dobbies handle instead of through the eyepiece.  One gent was so unimpressed with the view we offered of the sun that he was heard to mutter to a mate as they walked away, “They can’t fool me, that’s the Moon”.  One group was absolutely convinced that what they were seeing was not Saturn, but a painting we had somehow inserted in the eyepiece.  Even after I put the lid on the Dobby and the image disappeared, they still only grudgingly admitted that it might not be a painting after all.

We also had the near disasters with children trying to swing on the front of the Dobby or, worse still, almost poking a finger through the sun filter.  One toddler crawled in under the mirror end of Lynnette’s Dobby and got lifted into the air when she lowered the scope to give somebody a last look at the setting Venus.  Just imagine if they’d wanted to look at Saturn and she’d compressed the little blighter between the base of the Dobby and the rocker box!

More detail on what our programme looked like and details of the topics we covered can be found here, but on the first two days at Zevenwacht Mall we were inside handing out material and talking to people because it was overcast and rainy.  Samantha came round early on the Saturday to check if we had everything we needed, which was fortunate because we had a dead electrical connection and she had to organize power from elsewhere.  Because we were inside for two days we could not take up Panarotti’s kind offer to relay power from their restaurant to where we would have set up, next to their outside dining area.

The first morning at Zevenwacht started off with a double rainbow but both daysthere were windy, cold & wet.
Rainbow or no rainbow it rained


Samantha (far right) on the phone sorting out our power problems. Many thanks Samantha


Lynnette organizing the handouts before the rush and Auke gives an early bird a maths lesson
Auke’s demonstration of the scale of the Solar System was very popular and he was kept very busy.
The empty tables tell their own story of a steady stream of visitors eager for information
On our way to the cars after packing up there were clear signs that the rain was over, for the time being

On Monday the 29th and Wednesday the 31st of July, days three and five of National Science Week, we set up at the Bellville Public Library.  This coincided with their annual Careers Exhibition which fitted in nicely with many of the hand-outs we had received from SAASTA.  On Monday the weather was cloudy for most of the day so we stayed indoors.  A highlight of the Monday’s proceedings was the opportunity to interact with a group of learners and some teachers from the Athlone School for the Blind.  For this we made use of the excellent Braille astronomy posters kindly supplied by Kimberly Kowal Arcand.  Kimberly is part of the NASA/Chandra X-ray telescope’s educational project to take astronomy to the visually impaired and she is based at Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Another interesting site to visit in this regard is that of Astronomy Without Borders.   A very interesting article on the topic by Bernhard Beck Winchatz, can be found here.  We are extremely grateful to the staff of the Bellville Library for their instrumental role in organizing this contact session.  The experience was without doubt one of the highlights of National Science Week and a memory that will stay with us for a long time. A big thank you to Christelle and Jackie for creating the opportunity for us.

Auke’s two posters flanking the ones advertising the fact that this was National Science Week and it was funded by the DST, the NRF and SAASTA,
The Geology & Paleontology drew lots of attention and also generated some of the liveliest discussions and some of the strongest differences of opinion
On display in the Bellville Public Library were also some of the posters and handouts supplied to us by SAASTA for National Science Week

On Wednesday the skies were clear so we could do our solar viewing.  For a short while in the morning we also had the benefit of a pale Moon which really puzzled some people.  Many of them had apparently never noticed that one can at times see the Moon in daylight.  On the Monday evening, after a cloudy day, the weather cleared and we could do some star gazing in the parking area next to the Library.  On Wednesday evening we also had clear skies and a fair sized group of enthusiasts around the telescopes.  On Monday evening, while Auke and Lynnette set up the telescopes, I gave a talk in the Library hall entitled “Van die Son tot by die rand van die Melkweg – ‘n Blitstoer vir leunstoelreisigers en ander minder waaghalsige ruimtereisigers”.  On Wednesday evening, in the same timeslot, I gave a brief demonstration of the astronomy programme Stellarium and highlighted its use as a learning tool for would be astronomers.  Jackie’s soup, sandwiches and coffee on Wednesday evening were absolute lifesavers.

Edward looking for the Sun. Many visitors were quite amused by the fact that we had to “find” the Sun when it was quite obvious where it was.
Some visitors were slightly dimensionaly challenged and need assistance to get to the eyepiece
A skull? Your’e kidding me man, this is just a rock with white stripes! paleontology raises the eyebrows and the temperature once again.
Auke in a pensive mood.
Petro and Lynnette still managed a smile after along day in the Sun
This young gentleman was an absolute star and he wants to become a doctor. We will have to go back and indoctrinate him.
Despite the really scary light pollution there were still things we could show the visitors
Auke’s “self-drive” photo taking setup was a great hit

Tuesday the 30th of July on day four of National Science Week, we set up in front of the Brackenfell Public Library.  Bright and sunny with lots of opportunity for solar viewing.  In the morning I gave a talk in the Library hall entitled “Van die Son tot by die rand van die Melkweg – ‘n Blitstoer vir leunstoelreisigers en ander minder waaghalsige ruimtereisigers” and in the afternoon I gave a talk there entitled “Fossils, Light and Time”.

At Brackenfell Public Library, Auke’s beautiful banners on display.
Auke finishes his Chinese take-away lunch while Petro reorganizes the handouts
Chandra’s excellent poster on stellar evolution, with the advertisements of our venues to the left and the Solar System strip poster from SAASTA below in the foyer of the Brackenfell Public Library
The last learners to view the Sun before it slid behind the apartment building across the road
Part of the poster display in the foyer of the Brackenfell Public Library as part of our National Science Week presentation

On Tuesday evening we had a good turnout of adults and children.  Everyone was keenly interested in seeing what little could be seen due to the infuriating sky glow from the city lights.  As we were packing up just after 22:00, Sunelle provided the perfect finish to the day with hot chocolate and a glass of OB’s.  Three cheers for Sunelle!

It’s a plane! It’s a bird! No, it’s actually a star!
Lynnette operating the Kitchi-Koo with a long line of waiting customers
Sunelle, centre in the light coat discussing the evening with visitors

Thursday the 01st of August, the sixth day of National Science Week, saw us setting up on the Braak in Stellenbosch in very gusty conditions.  Between showing visitors the sun and holding down the gazebo, we spent a fair amount of time chasing down hand-outs and posters.

On the very windy Braak. Note the traffic cones employed as paperweights and even they got blown away along with the handouts at times.
Another of Auke’s excellent banners pinned to the grass because the wind blew it away all the time.
Lynnette explaining sunspots with Papegaaikop in the background and the Kruyhuis to her right, while Brett (white shirt) looks on.
Lynnette giving some girls from Bloemhof Hoër Meisieskool a view of the Sun and some sunspots

By late 16:30 we packed up and after supper set up in the parking area behind the Town Hall in almost windless conditions. The weather gods are indeed a fickle and unpredictable lot.  This specific area was known to an older generation of Stellenbosch residents as the Hardeveldjie.  We were later joined there by Ernst and his band of fellow students and the extra hands certainly helped handle the fairly large number of interested passers-by that wanted to have a look at Saturn and other objects, not blotted out by the orange glow of the overhead lights.  The electricity for Auke’s setup came from Julian’s Coffee Shop on the opposite side of Andringa Street courtesy of Mr Germishuys.  A highlight of the evening was a visit by the SAASTA representative, Brenda Edwards.  It was a pleasure to host a representative from SAASTA and give her some exposure to the somewhat chaotic nature of an astronomy outreach event.

Brenda Edwards, (blond lady bending forward in the centre) visited us and here Auke is instructing her on taking a photo with a computerized telescope
The last visitors gather around Auke to chat about the problems of presenting stargazing when there is so much light pollution around

 Friday the 02nd and Saturday the 03rd of August were days seven and eight of National Science Week and the team was starting to show signs of wear.  These were our two days at the Willowbridge Lifestyle Shopping Centre.  We started off on the wrong foot by missing our appointment on the Friday morning at 08:30 with Heinrich.  Consequently we had to move our setup because we were inadvertently infringing on some of the tenants spaces – a big no-no in shopping centres.  So we set up just outside an entrance and tried to entice shoppers to view the sun.

Auke (green shirt), Lynnette (red blouse), Petro (back to the camera and Carol Botha (who paid aus a brief visit) discuss whatever early on the first morning at Willowbridge Lifestyle Shopping Centre

On the Saturday we moved out into the parking area to give ourselves a little bit more room to move around in, but that turned out to be a mistake because people also had more space to walk around us.  It was consequently even more difficult than on the Friday to get to lure people to the telescopes for a peek at the sun.  The turnout for the stargazing on both evenings was lower than we expected but then the light pollution successfully blotted out almost everything except Venus, Saturn and a few of the brighter objects.

Auke assisting visitors with Solar Viewing
Look at the young man in the white vest looking into the front of the telescope. This is something I saw many people do after they had looked at the Sun through the eyepiece. Why?
Auke at the ready in front of his laptop, Lynnette pacing up and down to keep warm and Petro keeping Saturn in Lorenzo’s sights as we wait for customers at Willowbridge

Sunday the 04th of August was the ninth and last day of National Science Week, or as Evan called it the Scienceathon, and there was no doubt that the team wasn’t quite as sprightly as on day one.  We set up right next to the amphitheater in the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.  This was almost the exact spot where Prince Alfred (second son of Queen Victoria) had tipped the first load of stone for the construction of the V&A way back in the 1800’s.  In a manner of speaking, I suppose we were tipping our last load of hand-outs.  The V&A events manager, George Moolman, was on hand to give us a hand with the connections from Auke’s setup to the big screen and to point out some last minute do’s and don’ts and by then the first members of the public were coming through and asking questions.

Our SKA-banner from the 2012 National Science Week
Another of last years banners, this one showcasing the work of South African astrophotographers
This banner, believe it or not, dates back to 2004 and it’s still going strong; admittedly aided by a staple or two here and there
The first of the 2013 crop of banners. The small stone pillar on the far right commemorates the fact that prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s second son) stood on that very spot when he tipped the firs load of stone to start the construction of the then new harbour in 1860.
Lynnette on her way to sort out the wrinkles in the second one of the 2013 banners

Throughout the day we had a steady stream of visitors which at times threatened to swamp us, but we survived.  Auke’s excellent banners and posters once again drew a lot of attention and his solar system scale demonstration was as popular as it had been on all the other days.  We had Haidee Muller from Radio Sonder Grense come round for an interview, which was a bit nerve wracking, but we survived that too. By the time the sun dropped behind the buildings we were not exactly sorry to see it go.  We were tired, not just from the day’s activities, but as cumulative effect of the week’s activities.

An almost aerial view of our display area in the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront
Lynnette & Lorenzo in action, giving visitors a view of the Sun and the sunspots
Auke projecting his Solar System scale demonstration onto the big screen in the amphitheater
We had a very tall visitor too
The tall visitor presenting Lynnette with a balloon butterfly

However, we managed to finish the evening successfully despite the fact that the spot the V&A had assigned to us was anything but a prime astronomy spot. The huge, brightly lit Ferris wheel was right in front of Crux and the light pollution was by far the worst we had experienced during National Science Week.

We packed up on Sunday night with mixed emotions.  Lynnette, Auke and I were glad National Science Week 2013 was over, very glad.  However, as we loaded the Vito the realization slowly dawned on us that we had exactly three days to prepare for the next DarkSky outing, which was scheduled to start on the 08th of August.  No rest for the wicked or for amateur astronomers it seems.

National Science Week was an eventful and definitely educational experience for Auke, Lynnette and myself.  A special word of thanks to Naomi Du Preez, who was a very willing and able assistant throughout the week and, without whose help things would have come badly unstuck more than just a few times.