Let’s Go Skywatching!

For years I have sought ways for me as a blind person to relate to the night sky, especially since sighted people cannot seem to describe it. “Oh no. It’s always changing. Oh no no no, forget it, I could never describe it.” they say for some reason. It intrigues me that something can exist which transcends visual description. Sighted people may debate about the things they see in the night sky, but they cannot debate its existence, and yet they cannot describe it. Once again, Apple’s iDevices make it possible!

I can always remember loving stories about space. I watched the space shuttle launches as a kid, becoming intrigued with the radio communication. I had toy space shuttles. I had glow-in-the-dark stars, moons, and planets both as stickers on my wall, and as sheets and pillowcases. I could turn on a large black light and see the whole room illuminated in an eerie glow, pretending to see the night sky. I always wanted to go into outer space, maybe even go to the moon, or perhaps build a time machine and visit the future. Later, I became a trekker, a passion which remains to this day. In fact, Levar Burton, who played Geordi La Forge, the blind chief engineer, retweeted my iPhone article. How cool!

A few weeks ago, I heard a broadcast about the ancient Maya. They watched the sky incessantly, and constructed very complex calendars to aid them. Originally, they did this for survival reasons – navigation and agriculture. Eventually they developed the more occult aspects, but it all came back to the stars for them and many other ancient civilizations as well. I thought about using the sky for navigation. I wondered if they had an app to figure out your current location based on a picture of the night sky. Then I had another thought. Do they have an app that tells you the stars and constellations in the night sky as you point the iPhone at them? It turns out that several exist!

I decided to try Go Skywatch Planetarium. I liked how it said that it had a simple setup – just start it and go. That sounded about right, and it behaved as advertised. I turned it on, started pointing my iPhone around, and started hearing constellations! Amazing!

But something seemed wrong. At one point, it read “Mensa.” I remembered the Simpsons episode They Saved Lisa’s Brain, in which she joins Mensa. “Welcome to Mensa, the society for those with high IQs.” says Principal Skinner. “It’s also a constellation visible only from the southern hemisphere.” Lisa quickly responds. “She’s good. She’s very good.” notes Professor Frink. I felt glad I remembered this, because I realized that by pointing the iPhone down, it shows me the sky as if I stood on the ground in the southern hemisphere with the iPhone angled up. Think of a sphere and it should make sense. Now I felt doubly amazed!

I soon realized that the iPad makes an excellent choice for this app. This has nothing to do with function – you can do this on an iPhone, an iPad, or an iPod touch. It has to do with aesthetics. Holding a larger object in your hand seems to convey a better sense of the angles and positions of the stars. It feels more like actually holding a piece of the night sky in your hand.

It feels exhilarating to actually get a sense for these different stellar bodies, feeling the angles and imagining the distances between them. I can also get some idea of the constant change taking place within the night sky. While this does not actually give me a better idea of what the night sky looks like, it does, for the first time, give me a way to relate to its contents. Besides, a lot of constellations have cool names, so you can always use your imagination. I quickly began to learn some of them, and felt glad I took Latin in school. I’ve heard the constellations don’t look anything like their names, but I don’t care. Looking at Microscopium the Microscope through the reality augmentation of an app never designed for the blind running on an iPad seemed more than symbolic. And Perseus the Hero stands atop them all- at least he did last night.

Perhaps physically aligning oneself to these stars causes one to receive the energy of its archetype. Perhaps the Mayans, Egyptians, and the other ancient civilizations got it right after all. Perhaps not. Either way, I have found a new activity to enjoy, one I never thought possible.

I have prepared a complete audio demonstration. Just use the links below to play or download it. I’d recommend listening to it late at night through good stereo headphones.