Listen to images from the James Webb Space Telescope

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Camilo Garzón: It’s science in 60 seconds from Scientific American. I am Camilo Garzon.

In July, the White House released the first image in the James Webb Space Telescope Image Collection – the JWST – during a preview event with President Joe Biden.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.: Six and a half months ago, a rocket launched from Earth carrying the world’s newest and most powerful space telescope on a million-mile journey through the cosmos…it’s a new window on the history of our universe. And today we’re going to see the first light that will shine through that window…

Garzon: It was a high-resolution image of a distant galaxy cluster known as SMACS 0723. It was the deepest, sharpest infrared image of the universe ever seen.

The image had to be seen to be believed – and on this day it was everywhere to be seen and pondered, from the big screen in Times Square to the billions of small screens around the world. But what if you are physically unable to see it?

Claire Blomé: SMACS 0723. Space background is black. Thousands of galaxies appear all over the view. Their shapes and colors vary. Some are different shades of orange, others are white. Most stars appear blue and are sometimes as large as more distant galaxies that appear next to them. A very bright star is just above and left of center. It has eight long bright blue diffraction peaks.

Garzon: Description. Scientific. And if you were unable to see, you would, for the first time, be able to construct a mental picture of what the rest of the sighted world has seen.

Flower : When I think of people listening to ALT text I want it to be like listening to a book where you imagine the scene, all the characters in the scene, and in those cases it could be galaxies and stars as characters, all the activity going on there find.

Garzon: This is Claire Blome, senior science writer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, the center of operations for the Webb Telescope.

And Alternate textas you may have understood, is an official way to describe and make the content of an image accessible to someone who might not be able to see it with their own eyes.

In 2020, it was thestimated that more than a billion people live on earth with a visual impairment. This is according to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. So if several million people around the world were following the news of Webb’s first image, the number of viewers who couldn’t actually see it was likely significant. The ALT text in this image has probably been heard by multitudes.

But ALT Text can do more than just a visual description. It can even add context to an infographic or chart that might not be clear to anyone taking it in, whether looking at it or hearing it described. At its best, ALT text also helps…

Carruthers: … fill in the gaps for what you might miss if you can’t fully access the entire image.

Garzon: Margaret Carruthers, also of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Flower : Everyone’s perception is different. The details of the science may be obvious to an astronomer or scientist, but they won’t be immediately obvious to a member of the public who doesn’t have that background.

Garzon: It’s Claire Blome again.

Flower : That’s why it’s so important that we have a team of educators and scientists who double check us. Have we covered everything? But have we also tried to describe some of the science because maybe it should be deleted because it shouldn’t be accessible to anyone in this alternative description?

Garzon: Blome and Carruthers both say that ALT text represents a fusion of science and art. But it is also a critical work, because no one should be excluded from the experience of apprehending our universe in a new way.

Flower : For me, it’s a bit of a wonder at first, but then, okay, that’s the hook now that you’re in it. Let me tell you what’s here. So being able to describe, say, the star in the center of a planetary nebula and then describing the scene of gas and dust around it, you know, being able to compare it to, you know, tissue vaporous or translucent.

Even if someone hasn’t seen fabric blowing in the wind, they may have felt it and understood fabric weight differences. But in any case, the goal is to paint a picture with the writing to be complete, to give the whole as much as possible. It’s not face-to-face, but it’s giving someone the same deep experience, that opportunity.

Garzon: A kind of adaptation and translation that still communicates and paints a picture as well as it can. Carruthers agrees…

Carruthers: It’s kind of like a translation where, say, someone translating poetry focuses on, you know, one word over another to convey the sentiment or intent of the poetry.

Garzon: For the first images of the Webbs, they wrote descriptions that were scientifically accurate, illuminating, and I would even say: poetic.

Here’s Blome reading one of his favorites:

Clear : This frame is split down the middle. Webb’s mid-infrared image is shown on the left and Webb’s near-infrared image on the right. The mid-infrared image appears much darker with far fewer points of light. Stars have very short diffraction peaks. Galaxies and stars also appear in a range of colors, including blue, green, yellow, and red. The near infrared image appears busier with many more dots. Thousands of galaxies and stars appear everywhere in this view. They are sharper and more distinct than what is seen in the mid-infrared view. Some galaxies have shades of orange while others are white. Most stars appear blue with long diffraction peaks, forming an eight-pointed star shape. There are also many thin and long orange arcs that curve around the center of the image.

Garzon: Beautiful.

Here is Carruthers reading one of his:

Carruthers: The background is deep blue with scattered points of light of different size and brightness running from left to right in the middle is an irregular line representing a spectrum of light, a graph of brightness versus length of light. wave of light. The area under the spectrum has a rainbow pattern ranging from red on the left to purple on the right. The coloring is semi-transparent. The blue starry background is visible behind and fades downward. In the middle, superimposed on the starry background and part of the spectrum, is a large gold-outlined hexagon with two hexagonal outlines.

Within the hexagon is an illustration of space with shapes representing objects and materials at different distances and points in time that Webb studies. A large planet with hints of cloud formation. Beams of matter shooting out from the center of a galaxy. Galaxies of different shapes and sizes, nebulae, clouds, widths and stars with eight sharp diffraction patterns.

Garzon: Thanks to the team at the Space Telescope Science Institute for describing these breathtakingly beautiful images in such a powerful and scientifically accurate way.

For Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, I’m Camilo Garzón.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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