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Blind astrophysicist listens to the stars by turning data into sound

A blind astrophysicist uses data to hear stars — and argues the technique can open our ears to new discoveries.

Wanda Diaz Merced continues her quest for discovery despite loss of sight

A solar flare, seen here from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, could also be heard, by turning measurements of its activity into sound, says Wanda Diaz Merced. (NASA Handout via Reuters)

Take a look at the night skies, and wonder at the stars.

That's what Wanda Diaz Merced grew up doing in Puerto Rico, dreaming of being an astronaut and turning her sister's bed into a space ship.

Then, in her 20s and early in her career studying astrophysics, a prolonged illness left her blind. Diaz Merced couldn't see the stars — or her data.

"It left me without a way to do my science," she told the TED Conference in Vancouver this week.

So for her doctoral thesis, she developed a technique that turns supernovas and solar flares into sound.

Now she hears the stars — and argues it's a way not just to help scientists with disabilities, but to open our ears to new discoveries.

Wanda Diaz Merced, a blind astrophysicist, speaks about turning star data into sound at the 2016 TED Conference in Vancouver. (Bret Hartman/TED)

Sound of a supernova?

There is famously no sound in space, so don't imagine Diaz Merced pointing a microphone at the sky. The sound comes from data.

She realized that the measurements her colleagues looked at from say, a supernova — an exploding star — were just numbers.

And while we're used to seeing numbers, they could be heard too: with each pitch change representing a change in intensity.

On stage, she played the sound of data from a gamma ray burst. That's the most powerful kind of explosion in the universe, but as data, it's been likened to a cellphone ringtone, or windchimes.

Listen to the stars

'Listen' to a gamma-ray burst

7 years ago
Duration 0:25
Blind astrophysicist Wanda Diaz Merced has turned astronomical data into sound

Diaz Merced, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, argues that by hearing data, scientists can find patterns and phenomena the eye might miss.

Sonified data from the binary star system EX Hydrae, for example, revealed something that wasn't predicted by theoretical models of the stars pulsating and interacting, she said.

What that something is will require more work to figure out, but Diaz Merced says it makes the case that other senses can aid discovery.

"The eye ... is really limited, and we are only depending on our eyes right now," she said in an interview.

"When we synchronize our different ways of perceiving the world, our sensitivity to events that are masked to the eye ... increases exponentially."

Today, she still gets emotional remembering the sight of the spiral arms of the Milky Way in a pitch-black sky in Puerto Rico.

But the sound of pulsating stars — heard through data — still delights her.

"When I hear that, I just feel like dancing or starting to clap."

The most memorable night sky Diaz Merced remembers from before she lost her sight was the Milky Way. This view was taken over the rocks of the White Desert in Egypt last year. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)