SCIENCE WITHOUT SIGHT:
Non-visual approaches to science and nature
“When we think of the outdoors, most of us conjure up visual images; the view from a mountaintop, a rainbow, a browsing deer, a soaring hawk. But the desire to experience nature, wilderlust, we can call it, isn’t limited to one set of sensory capabilities; it is – or can be – a universal. The intense joy of communing with the natural world can be experienced by those with little or no vision – and there are so many.” (from the introduction to “Wilderlust” edited by Chrissy Laws and published by NHEST)
At its most basic, science is simply the systematic study of the world around us. We seek information, analyze it, organize it into meaningful knowledge units, and compare it with our existing knowledge. Sometimes we can fit the new information into some ready-made niche; sometimes we have to take another look at the information we have just gotten; sometimes we have to change the existing structures of our knowledge. We need to collect information in such a way that another person using the same equipment could collect the same information to either validate or invalidate our observations.
Most of the information that gets the headlines is illustrated by some spectacular photograph. That's the simple way, and that's the way we are used to doing things. But often the photograph is a conversion of some other type of information. Digital information is nothing more than a string of on-offs that we send from spacecraft, into cells, where ever. We convert it into visual images when we get it back; that's the way we do things.
But we don't always have to and it often gives a limited picture of not only the universe, but of the nature of science and scientists -- the science of nature and the nature of scientists. A scientist often gets most information from a digital readout that can be as easily converted to sound -- or even touch. The most basic information coming into a radio telescope is sound, the varying background hiss that we convert to visual imagery to give us a 'picture' of the radio universe. We lose a richness in the universe by converting it to easily-managed pictures. We have to condense, abstract the richness around us in order not to be overwhelmed. But there is more than one way to condense, to abstract.
The radio noise of the universe is one of the most basic bits of information that comes to us as other than visual imagery, but there is a wealth of other such information, not only of such grand things as stars and planets, but of such small items as cells and birds and kittens. Temperature at its most basic is the motion of molecules. We can't see molecules, any of us, so why do we automatically feel that the best way to represent temperature is with a visual scale? Perhaps at one time it was, but now with our digital capabilities, we can make it almost anything we want.
At an annual program at Maine Audubon's Fields Pond Nature Center we follow blind birder Steve Coleman around listening to birds. We usually record 20 some odd species, many by sound alone. Center director Judy Markowsky says we generally record more species than those who use only sight.
In "Wilderlust" I compare the avian world known to Steve Coleman (blind, acute, trained hearing) to that which I know (poor hearing, good distance vision). "Well, I can do some things Steve can’t do, and he can do some things I can’t do. My world of sound would seem muffled to him and imprecise. He can form a much better picture of the bird population of a forested area than I can because he can hear and identify a lot more birds. Part is simple auditory acuity, but part is in the tuning. I can tell more about hawks, gulls and such overhead. Yet he will be aware of Canada geese or swallows before I am."
Birds, amphibians, some insects; all these yield their secrets to the trained auditory observer. The careful listener can even tell something about the type of forest he or she is in by the sounds of wind, bird and other species, and the feel of air movement. But is this just something to amuse -- though there is nothing wrong with that? Well, no. We record our observations on Steve's walk every year as part of an international bird census. We contribute to the science of ornithology. One year I kept track and every participant, blind or sighted, youngerster or oldster, contibuted a unique observation to the count. Those who couldn't identify the birds they heard, simply directed the attention of those who could to the distant chirp, squeak, or gurgle. Perhaps most important for the person is the growing sense of awareness, of sharing common knowledge with others, but the benefits to science and society are there also.
It's not only sound, though, that can teach us about our surroundings. Touch can get us into a depth of botany not often experienced by the general public. How do the twigs and leaves grow? And then we have smell. Nobody who has crushed the needles of a white fir and experienced the order of freshly-used cat litter that results can doubt the strength of the olfactory experience. Steve Coleman identifies balsam firs by smell. Participants at our workshops learn to distinguish between white birch and yellow birch by the wintergreen fragrance in the scratched twigs of the yellow.
The authors in "Wilderlust" use their senses of sound, touch, smell, balance -- and their knowledge and experience -- to water-ski, birdwatch, hike, whalewatch, explore caves, cleanup streams, canoe, cycle, build wood fires, garden, hunt, and more.
And one more thing. The cover artist for "Wilderlust" Richard Brown, has lost much of his vision to macular holes in the last few years. "I see less, but I know more," he says. He still paints.
We plan an increasing series of events based upon non-visual approaches to learning science, nature, ecology. Right now we plan:
- 'Solitude walk'. Spend some time alone expanding all your senses.
- Science fair. Young people can demonstrate their own views of non-visual science.
- Essay contest. Again for the young non-visual scientist.
- Another book. This one will be on country living skills. Do you write?
- We plan to do a birdwalk and the accompanying non-visual science workshop in 2005.
- We are developing online classes in topics related to science, nature, technology.
- We are working on bringing visually impaired people into greater participation in emergency awareness and coping with disasters.
- And we have a mobile classroom that can bring the programs to the people who can't get to the programs.