In the past, a solar eclipse was considered an event that could only be experienced visually. The downside of this mentality is that it excludes the thousands of potential eclipse enthusiasts who are visually impaired.
Now, eclipse chasers and scientists are working on ways to make an eclipse accessible to the visually impaired, too.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways in which the eclipse experience is becoming a multisensory event.
More Than Meets the Eye
While an eclipse is traditionally thought of as an event that is meant to be observed visually, such thinking doesn’t account for the huge percentage of our population who are visually impaired. However, there is so much more to the eclipse experience than meets the eye.
During a solar eclipse, there are more changes taking place in the surrounding environment than just the main event happening in the heavens above. There are changes in light, temperature, and sound that all have an impact on the greater experience itself. In fact, some scientists and eclipse chasers are working to highlight these non-visual elements of the experience so that visually impaired individuals can also learn, enjoy, and take part in the wonderful event that is a solar eclipse.
The Sound of Totality
An eclipse is a remarkable experience for those who cannot see, thanks to the dramatic and sudden changes in the surrounding soundscape at the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth. This is largely due to the behavior of the animals in the surrounding environment. As the light dims with the passing of the Moon, diurnal animals begin to settle as if the night is falling, while nocturnal animals begin to buzz!
But even more incredible is that once the light of the Sun starts to peek past the Moon’s edge again, this triggers what scientists call a “false dawn chorus,” or the soundscape produced by animals every morning when the Sun first rises. It’s yet another breathtaking aspect of a solar eclipse that even seasoned eclipse chasers can often overlook – or should we say ‘underhear’!
Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter, a solar astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian, first developed the idea of the eclipse soundscapes with a penchant for scientific engagement projects. While working on solar eclipse-themed exhibits for a museum, Dr. Winter noticed that accessibility for the visually impaired was an issue. He realized that, while some exhibits simply offered braille explanations of what was being displayed, his exhibit did not have an accessibility component at all!
Winter got to work trying to come up with ideas for a multisensory astrophysics exhibit, therefore making it an eclipse experience that more people – including those who are visually or aurally challenged – could also enjoy. He used the eclipse that occurred on August 21, 2017, as an opportunity to launch the next phase of his Eclipse Soundscape project.
A More Accessible Eclipse Experience
Dr. Winter’s project has partnered with the National Park Service, among other organizations, to record the sounds of a total solar eclipse – including the eclipse that took place on August 21, 2017.
For future eclipse events, visually impaired eclipse chasers can use the Eclipse Soundscapes app to hear a real-time narration of the celestial movements as they happen. This will allow them to learn and understand exactly what is happening at each given moment, capturing the drama of the event.
This app will also include a “rumble map,” which will turn the user’s phone screen into a touch-based map that vibrates according to how bright or dim the eclipse is at that moment. The smartphone vibrates more as you move your finger around the Sun, but if you swipe your finger over a dark part where the Moon is blocking the Sun, the vibrations disappear.
It’s a truly fascinating way to use technology for the greater good! Dr. Winter and his team plan to continue their efforts for the total solar eclipses in Chile in 2019, and the April 2024 total solar eclipse.
Rainbow Symphony is committed to expanding the eclipse chaser community by providing the best possible resources and products for experiencing an eclipse. Be sure to bookmark our blog to stay informed leading up to the 2023 annular eclipse and 2024 total solar eclipse. If you to need eye protection for an upcoming eclipse, be sure to explore our collection of eclipse eyewear and solar filters for binoculars, telescopes, and cameras.