This Blind Boricua Astrophysicist Pioneered a Revolutionary Way to Study Stars Through Sound

As a child in Puerto Rico, Wanda Díaz Merced pretended her sister’s bed was a spaceship. The two girls spent hours visiting far-away worlds and leaving their realities behind. In real life, a middle school science fair motivated her to pursue a career in science. After coming in second place, she realized she could actually succeed in the field. “I wanted to be a scientist since I was a little girl,” she said, according to Ciencia Puerto Rico. “I always did science fair projects, and I used to mix things at home – something I don’t recommend to young people now.”

So when Díaz went completely blind in her early 20s as a result of an illness, she didn’t let that stop her. She had simultaneously lost her job as an undergraduate research assistant. “My determination is stronger than any setback or obstacle,” she said. “At that time, there was no way that a blind person could do science, let alone space science at a doctoral level. I had the honor of being in the necessity of finding the means to work as an astrophysicist.”

“My determination is stronger than any setback or obstacle.”

As Díaz Merced said at a TED Talk earlier this year, astrophysicists highly depend on their sense of sight. There’s much that the naked eye can’t see. However, through many tools, scientists study a wider range of light. For example, scientists use plots to determine the intensity of light over time. Díaz used this method early in her career. After she lost her vision, she longed to see another plot. “I wanted to experience the spacious wonder, the excitement, the joy produced by the detection of such a titanic celestial event,” she said.

Photo: Bret Hartman / TED
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In 2005, she applied to the Access internship program designed for people with disabilities at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. That’s when everything changed. After stepping back and truly analyzing that a plot is just a visual representation of a light curve, she got to work. She and a group of scientists turned those numbers into sound. It wasn’t easy. But after converting the scientific data into sound – a process called sonification – high-level physics became possible for her again.

What’s more, it’s become evident that coupling sonification with other methods can give astronomers a more complete picture. Some of the things that can be heard through sonification can’t be seen. “Listening to this very gamma-ray burst brought us to the notion that the use of sound as an adjunctive visual display may also support sighted astronomers in the search for more information in the data,” she added. According to Mic, her work has led other astrophysicists to consider new ways to study stars.

Pitch, volume, or rhythm help her tell the differences between values in data. So the largest number might have the highest pitch, and the smallest number the lowest. It’s not music, though someone did eventually turn the sound of stars into songs.

But truly, it’s not just her scientific contributions that make her admirable. Díaz Merced is fighting so that others with disabilities can also pursue science. She doesn’t believe that someone – whether they are at the top of the field or just starting out – should feel their careers are over because they have a disability.

At the beginning, people told her that perception techniques had no place in the study of astronomy data. However, the South African Astronomical Observatory welcomed her ideas. It told her it wanted to make it easier for people with disabilities to participate. Currently, she works at the South African observatory’s Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD). In April 2014, the OAD introduced AstroSense, a project she leads. There, they work to make the science accessible to everyone. During the TED Talk, she proudly discussed her work with students from the Athlone School for the Blind. With this partnership, she hopes to find more techniques that will help make this field more inclusive.

“Personally for me, it would be perfect to find diversely abled physicists, mathematicians and astronomers who can use their ability to adapt to the data, team up with their peers and contribute as equals,” she wrote in a Scientific American article. “As a visually impaired scientist, I daydream about not being underestimated. I wish for people to regard those with disabilities (or other learning styles, as I prefer to call it) as capable of contributing to my field (any field!) at the same level as their sighted peers.”

Check her out in action below: