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TED2016

Wanda Diaz Merced: How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars

February 16, 2016

Wanda Diaz Merced studies the light emitted by gamma-ray bursts, the most energetic events in the universe. When she lost her sight and was left without a way to do her science, she had a revelatory insight: the light curves she could no longer see could be translated into sound. Through sonification, she regained mastery over her work, and now she's advocating for a more inclusive scientific community. "Science is for everyone," she says. "It has to be available to everyone, because we are all natural explorers."

Wanda Diaz Merced - Sonic astrophysicist
While searching for ways to study stellar radiation without relying on sight, Wanda Diaz Merced has developed a way to represent complex data about our universe as sound. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Once there was a star.
00:12
Like everything else, she was born;
00:15
grew to be around 30 times
the mass of our sun
00:18
and lived for a very long time.
00:22
Exactly how long,
00:25
people cannot really tell.
00:26
Just like everything in life,
00:28
she reached the end
of her regular star days
00:30
when her heart, the core of her life,
00:34
exhausted its fuel.
00:36
But that was no end.
00:38
She transformed into a supernova,
and in the process
00:40
releasing a tremendous amount of energy,
00:43
outshining the rest of the galaxy
00:46
and emitting, in one second,
00:49
the same amount of energy
our sun will release in 10 days.
00:51
And she evolved
into another role in our galaxy.
00:55
Supernova explosions are very extreme.
00:59
But the ones that emit gamma rays
are even more extreme.
01:02
In the process of becoming a supernova,
01:07
the interior of the star collapses
under its own weight
01:09
and it starts rotating ever faster,
01:12
like an ice skater when pulling
their arms in close to their body.
01:15
In that way, it starts rotating very fast
and it increases, powerfully,
01:20
its magnetic field.
01:24
The matter around the star
is dragged around,
01:26
and some energy from that rotation
is transferred to that matter
01:29
and the magnetic field
is increased even further.
01:33
In that way, our star had extra energy
to outshine the rest of the galaxy
01:37
in brightness and gamma ray emission.
01:43
My star, the one in my story,
01:45
became what is known as a magnetar.
01:48
And just for your information,
01:51
the magnetic field of a magnetar
is 1,000 trillion times
01:52
the magnetic field of Earth.
01:56
The most energetic events
ever measured by astronomers
01:59
carry the name gamma-ray bursts
02:02
because we observe them
as bursts most or explosions,
02:04
most strongly measured as gamma-ray light.
02:08
Our star, like the one in our story
that became a magnetar,
02:11
is detected as a gamma-ray burst
02:15
during the most energetic
portion of the explosion.
02:18
Yet, even though gamma-ray bursts
are the strongest events
02:21
ever measured by astronomers,
02:27
we cannot see them with our naked eye.
02:29
We depend, we rely on other methods
02:32
in order to study this gamma-ray light.
02:34
We cannot see them with our naked eye.
02:37
We can only see
an itty bitty, tiny portion
02:39
of the electromagnetic spectrum
that we call visible light.
02:42
And beyond that, we rely on other methods.
02:45
Yet as astronomers,
we study a wider range of light
02:48
and we depend on other methods to do that.
02:53
On the screen, it may look like this.
02:56
You're seeing a plot.
02:59
That is a light curve.
03:01
It's a plot of intensity
of light over time.
03:03
It is a gamma-ray light curve.
03:06
Sighted astronomers
depend on this kind of plot
03:09
in order to interpret how
this light intensity changes over time.
03:13
On the left, you will be seeing
the light intensity without a burst,
03:18
and on the right, you will be seeing
the light intensity with the burst.
03:24
Early during my career,
I could also see this kind of plot.
03:30
But then, I lost my sight.
03:34
I completely lost my sight
because of extended illness,
03:37
and with it, I lost
the opportunity to see this plot
03:40
and the opportunity to do my physics.
03:45
It was a very strong transition
for me in many ways.
03:49
And professionally, it left me
without a way to do my science.
03:53
I longed to access and scrutinize
this energetic light
03:57
and figure out the astrophysical cause.
04:02
I wanted to experience
the spacious wonder, the excitement,
04:04
the joy produced by the detection
of such a titanic celestial event.
04:08
I thought long and hard about it,
04:13
when I suddenly realized
that all a light curve is,
04:16
is a table of numbers
converted into a visual plot.
04:20
So along with my collaborators,
04:24
we worked really hard and we translated
the numbers into sound.
04:26
I achieved access to the data,
04:31
and today I'm able to do physics
at the level of the best astronomer,
04:33
using sound.
04:38
And what people have been able to do,
04:39
mainly visually,
04:42
for hundreds of years,
04:43
now I do it using sound.
04:45
(Applause)
04:47
Listening to this gamma-ray burst
04:48
that you're seeing on the --
(Applause continues)
04:50
Thank you.
04:52
Listening to this burst
that you're seeing on the screen
04:54
brought something to the ear
beyond the obvious burst.
04:56
Now I'm going to play the burst for you.
04:59
It's not music, it's sound.
05:01
(Digital beeping sounds)
05:05
This is scientific data
converted into sound,
05:08
and it's mapped in pitch.
05:11
The process is called sonification.
05:12
So listening to this
brought something to the ear
05:18
besides the obvious burst.
05:21
When I examine the very strong
low-frequency regions,
05:22
or bass line -- I'm zooming
into the bass line now.
05:27
We noted resonances characteristic
of electrically charged gasses
05:33
like the solar wind.
05:38
And I want you to hear what I heard.
05:40
You will hear it as a very fast
decrease in volume.
05:43
And because you're sighted,
I'm giving you a red line
05:46
indicating what intensity of light
is being converted into sound.
05:49
(Digital hum and whistling sound)
05:55
The (Whistles) is frogs at home,
don't pay attention to that.
05:57
(Laughter)
06:01
(Digital hum and whistling sound)
06:03
I think you heard it, right?
06:08
So what we found
06:11
is that the bursts last long enough
in order to support wave resonances,
06:12
which are things caused by exchanges
of energy between particles
06:17
that may have been excited,
06:21
that depend on the volume.
06:23
You may remember that I said
that the matter around the star
06:24
is dragged around?
06:28
It transmits power with frequency
and field distribution
06:29
determined by the dimensions.
06:33
You may remember that we were talking
about a super-massive star
06:36
that became a very strong
magnetic field magnetar.
06:40
If this is the case, then outflows
from the exploding star
06:44
may be associated
with this gamma-ray burst.
06:48
What does that mean?
06:50
That star formation
may be a very important part
06:52
of these supernova explosions.
06:55
Listening to this very gamma-ray burst
brought us to the notion
06:57
that the use of sound
as an adjunctive visual display
07:02
may also support sighted astronomers
07:05
in the search for more
information in the data.
07:07
Simultaneously, I worked on analyzing
measurements from other telescopes,
07:10
and my experiments demonstrated
07:15
that when you use sound
as an adjunctive visual display,
07:17
astronomers can find more information
07:22
in this now more accessible data set.
07:25
This ability to transform data into sound
07:28
gives astronomy a tremendous
power of transformation.
07:32
And the fact that a field
that is so visual may be improved
07:36
in order to include anyone with interest
in understanding what lies in the heavens
07:40
is a spirit-lifter.
07:44
When I lost my sight,
07:47
I noticed that I didn't have access
07:49
to the same amount
and quality of information
07:51
a sighted astronomer had.
07:53
It was not until we innovated
with the sonification process
07:56
that I regained the hope
to be a productive member of the field
07:59
that I had worked so hard to be part of.
08:03
Yet, information access
is not the only area in astronomy
08:07
where this is important.
08:11
The situation is systemic
08:14
and scientific fields are not keeping up.
08:16
The body is something changeable --
08:20
anyone may develop
a disability at any point.
08:23
Let's think about, for example,
08:26
scientists that are already
at the top of their careers.
08:28
What happens to them
if they develop a disability?
08:31
Will they feel excommunicated as I did?
08:34
Information access
empowers us to flourish.
08:37
It gives us equal opportunities
to display our talents
08:41
and choose what we want
to do with our lives,
08:44
based on interest and not based
on potential barriers.
08:47
When we give people the opportunity
to succeed without limits,
08:52
that will lead to personal fulfillment
and prospering life.
08:56
And I think that the use
of sound in astronomy
09:01
is helping us to achieve that
and to contribute to science.
09:03
While other countries told me
that the study of perception techniques
09:07
in order to study astronomy data
is not relevant to astronomy
09:12
because there are no blind
astronomers in the field,
09:16
South Africa said, "We want
people with disabilities
09:19
to contribute to the field."
09:22
Right now, I'm working
09:24
at the South African
Astronomical Observatory,
09:26
at the Office of Astronomy
for Development.
09:28
There, we are working on sonification
techniques and analysis methods
09:32
to impact the students
of the Athlone School for the Blind.
09:37
These students will be learning
radio astronomy,
09:41
and they will be learning
the sonification methods
09:43
in order to study astronomical events
like huge ejections of energy
09:47
from the sun, known as
coronal mass ejections.
09:51
What we learn with these students --
09:55
these students have multiple disabilities
and coping strategies
09:56
that will be accommodated --
10:00
what we learn with these students
will directly impact
10:02
the way things are being done
at the professional level.
10:05
I humbly call this development.
10:08
And this is happening right now.
10:10
I think that science is for everyone.
10:14
It belongs to the people,
10:18
and it has to be available to everyone,
10:19
because we are all natural explorers.
10:21
I think that if we limit people
with disabilities
10:24
from participating in science,
10:29
we'll sever our links with history
and with society.
10:31
I dream of a level
scientific playing field,
10:35
where people encourage respect
and respect each other,
10:38
where people exchange strategies
and discover together.
10:43
If people with disabilities
are allowed into the scientific field,
10:47
an explosion, a huge titanic burst
of knowledge will take place,
10:51
I am sure.
10:56
(Digital beeping sounds)
11:01
That is the titanic burst.
11:02
Thank you.
11:06
Thank you.
11:07
(Applause)
11:08

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Wanda Diaz Merced - Sonic astrophysicist
While searching for ways to study stellar radiation without relying on sight, Wanda Diaz Merced has developed a way to represent complex data about our universe as sound.

Why you should listen

When Wanda Diaz Merced lost her sight in her early 20s, her dreams of studying stars in the visually oriented scientific world suffered a major setback -- until she discovered “sonification,” a way to turn huge data sets into audible sound using pitch, duration and other properties. Merced realized that she could use her ears to detect patterns in stellar radio data, and could uncover connections obscured by graphs and visual representation.

While working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Merced’s sonifications inspired musician and researcher Gerhard Sonnert to create X-Ray Hydra, an album of oddly jazzy music based on her audio representations.

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