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A device that translates light into sound helps create a unique solar eclipse experience

Three rows of light sound devices. They are plastic squares boxes that comes in different colors.
Allyson Bieryla
Light Sound devices

April’s total solar eclipse will cross over Vermont — and preparations for the phenomenon are well underway. Including for members of Vermont’s blind and low-vision community. Many of them are hoping to experience the eclipse with the help of a device that converts light into sound.

Astronomer Allyson Bieryla oversees the lab at Harvard University that created the aptly-named LightSound Device for solar eclipses.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke with Bieryla to learn more. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Tell me about this LightSound device. What is it?

Allyson Bieryla: The LightSound device was developed back in 2017, as an aid for the blind and low vision community to experience solar eclipses with sound. We wanted to build something that was low cost and accessible to people around the world, essentially. We use components you can buy off the internet — they're easy to kind of assemble. We created this device, which essentially takes light and converts it to sound, so it's a different way to kind of observe a solar eclipse.

Mary Williams Engisch: Can you describe the device itself? What are its dimensions? What is it made out of?

Allyson Bieryla looking up at the eclipse through her solar eclipse sunglasses
Allyson Bieryla
Allyson Bieryla looking at a solar Eclipse

Allyson Bieryla: The device is made up of just a few components. There's a microcontroller board, which is kind of like a little mini computer where the code sits. There's this high dynamic range light sensor; as the light comes, it's just measuring the intensity or brightness of the light. Then it goes through this microcontroller, which is where the code is, where it kind of maps that light intensity to a sound. Then we have a MIDI component. Some musicians may be familiar with that term, but it's just a component that allows us to assign instruments to the sound to give it a more pleasant sound. The way we've done it is we've mapped the brightest light to a flute sound, the mid-range goes into a clarinet sound and then the lowest range kind of goes into like a low clicking, which slows down as you get into totality.

Then it's got this on-off switch and an audio jack. You can output the sound to headphones, so you can have your own individual experience — if you wish. You can connect it to a speaker; some groups have connected to this device to to a speaker and had a listening section or sound section of the eclipse. You can also connect the device to a computer, and you can record the data and analyze or sonify it later. We're hoping to collect datasets from around the entire path and make like a sound map or something cool at the end of it.


Mary Williams Engisch: Oh, cool. You mentioned using it as a tool or aid for blind and low vision people. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Who's going to be using it? Who do you hope has this in their hands for the solar eclipse coming up in April?

Allyson Bieryla: In October, there were over 200 devices that have already been sent out for the annular. I was in Albuquerque, and now we're really ramping up for the total eclipse in April. We're geared up to make probably 800 of these devices; that's what we're funded to do.

We're kind of targeting anyone that's holding an event, right? We want to make sure events are accessible. If someone shows up and wants to have a listening section or a blind or low-vision person wants to experience it that way. It's not just for blind or low-vision — it's for sighted people as well. Some people just are non-visual people or just want a different or additional way to experience the eclipse. We're kind of all over the place, at universities, libraries, museums and small gatherings. We just partnered with the Simons Foundation as well. We're going to be targeting all the schools for the blind across the path of totality.

Mary Williams Engisch: You mentioned that back in 2017, you wanted to create this — but take me back to that moment. Was there something that that you thought, "Oh wow, we were going to try this? Or has this been done before?"

Allyson Bieryla: As part of my role at Harvard, I manage the labs and telescopes that we use for undergraduate teaching. I think about the lab space we have — I have been in Harvard now 15 years. A few years after I got there, I'm thinking, "Wait, you know, maybe our space isn't accessible to all of our students," or "Maybe this lab could be done a different way." I started thinking about some of these things. Someone had told me, "You really need to speak to Wanda Díaz-Merced." Who I didn't know at the time. She's a blind astronomer, and she does sonification for her research. She's developed software and tools to kind of be able to access data for her own research. We started having conversations about the lab and what I'm thinking about.

She was like, "Well, what about sound? What about sonification?" It's something that I hadn't really been thinking about, or knew much about at all. There were a bunch of conversations with her. We were talking about that. And she's like, "What are you doing for the eclipse?" It led from there.

Mary Williams Engisch: Can people help — let's say if they want to jump in and start creating these to make sure that everybody who wants one has got one before the eclipse?

Clusters of students sitting at tables and working on light sound devices
A LightSound workshop at the Rochester Museum of Science.

Allyson Bieryla: Yeah, we have a website that people can go to. People can either request a built device if you're gonna be running event, or if you want to share this information with people that are — we're more than happy to have you on the list, and we'll ship them out as we build them.

We also are running workshops. We're trying to develop as much documentation as we can. I'm happy to have conversations if you want to run a workshop on your own, or you can buy the parts and kind of run something on your own. It's a great way to teach students or teach people these new skills, but also give back to the community and help get as many devices as you can out there.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.

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