A Celestial Sound at Kent State

On April 8, 2024, the Kent community stopped for a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event. While most spectators watched the total solar eclipse, some listened to it.

The Student Accessibility Services (SAS) and the Department of Physics at Kent State University held an event at the Schwebel Room Balcony on the third floor of the Kent Student Center to make the eclipse accessible to the low-vision and blind community.

The LightSound device on top of a table next to a computer, a lightbulb, and a flyer.
The LightSound device.

By using a device called LightSound, faculty, students, and staff listened to the sounds made by the changes in the light’s intensity. Gregory Putman, senior academic laboratory manager in the Department of Physics, is part of the American Association of Physics Teachers and learned about the device from a member who was hosting a workshop to teach others how to assemble it.

The LightSound Project originated from the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard in cooperation with the Smithsonian. They gathered volunteers to assist in the creation of around 900 of these devices and distribute them for free.

Putman mentioned that over 2,500 people requested them. However, the organization had to focus on giving them to people on the path of totality so they could help livestream the sound in a worldwide broadcast.

He mentioned the device has a light sensor that measures the light’s brightness. Then, it turns that brightness into a voltage sent to a Midi board, an electronic keyboard, which turns into a virtual musical instrument.

“The brighter the light is, the higher the musical pitch,” he said. “For when it’s dark, they tried to make a sound that shows the absence of light. They added a click sound that gets slower until it almost stops.”

Putman initially got the device to use in one of his classes but thought that it was something SAS could also be interested in. He reached out to Amanda Feaster, director of SAS, and showed her how the device worked.

Gregory Putman next to a student behind a table with the LightSound device.
Gregory Putman (left) and Somtochukwu Abraham, an undergraduate pre-med student who volunteered to assist with the equipment.

Feaster mentioned that this was the first time SAS could make a natural event accessible to students, and it would not have been possible without Putman. Usually, the office reaches out to individuals to make things accessible, but this time, the academic side of the university came to them.

“It’s difficult to make science and nature accessible to people with disabilities,” Feaster said. “To have seen it coming proactively from the science side of things was neat.”

Kent State has a small number of students who are blind or have low vision, and a typical way to make a visual event accessible to them is through audio description. However, Feaster mentioned that describing an eclipse with words would have been challenging.

“[The LightSound device] was built from the beginning with accessibility in mind,” she said. “I think that’s what made it so impactful.”

Feaster mentioned that with the device, she could listen to the differences in the light before they were visually noticeable. She added that she got excited to hear the eclipse coming and see people on Risman Plaza with their light sticks lit up.

“I was thrilled with it because it was the perfect location,” she said. “We were still a part of everything else but able to experience it in a different way.”

POSTED: Thursday, April 25, 2024 02:25 PM
Updated: Monday, April 29, 2024 05:06 PM
Eduardo Miranda Strobel
Student Accessibility Services and Phil Soencksen, UCM