Ancient Art Technique Helps Visually Impaired Chemists
People who study chemistry use their eyes a lot, from looking at molecular structures to interpreting graphs. But researchers at Baylor University have now found a way to make chemistry more accessible to people with visual impairments, thanks to a modern twist on an ancient art form.
To convert visual images like graphs into tactile aids, the researchers turned them into lithophanes. These are thin, semi-transparent etchings that depict images when backlit by a light source. Where the engraving is cut deeper into the material (such as porcelain or plastic) you can see more light coming through, creating a lighter part of the image. (It’s the same technique that advanced Halloween pumpkin carvers use to create intricate pictures.) Lithophanes were popular in Europe in the 1800s, but originated in China many centuries earlier, where the technique was often used to decorate porcelain products.
In the original use of lithophanes, the end goal was to create a visual image by etching or molding subtle three dimensional patterns that turn into a two-dimensional image when lit. But in a new study, the method was used to turn two-dimensional images into a more tactile version by using software that can convert any image to a three-dimensional topograph and then 3D-printed. This created tactile versions of scientific images that blind volunteers with chemistry backgrounds were able to interpret.
“The data and imagery of science – for example, the stunning images coming out from the new Webb telescope – are inaccessible to people who are blind,” says Bryan Shaw, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor University, in a statement to his university. “We show, however, that thin translucent tactile graphics, called lithophanes, can make all of this imagery accessible to everyone regardless of eyesight.”
The study was led by two PhD students in Shaw’s group, Jordan Koone and Chad Dashnaw, who were both interested in helping make chemistry more accessible. “Most of the research I do on a daily basis won’t have a significant impact on the scientific community,” says Dashnaw, “however, the lithophane project allows for real change in real time.” Koone further notes that, “It has been awesome to see blind people who have been told their entire life they could not excel in the fields of science interpret data just as easily as a sighted person.”
The benefit of using lithographs is that the image is both tactile and visible by eye. And indeed, the five blind chemists who helped with the study (including an undergraduate student, Noah Cook, who lost his vision in high school) were able to get similar information from the lithographs as a sighted researcher would get from looking at the same image.
This method of sharing scientific images also has applications beyond the research lab. Shaw was rewarded an NIH grant to develop similar tools for vision-impaired students in K-12 education. His group is now developing a pilot project for high school students together with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to make STEM education more inclusive.
“This research is an example of art making science more accessible and inclusive,” says Shaw, “Art is rescuing science from itself.”