Things Not Seen: Science for the Blind

If nanoscience is the field of stuff so tiny it can never be seen, does it matter if the scientist can see at all? At the University of Wisconsin's nanoscience center, Andrew Greenberg is in charge of education and outreach—and it occurred to him that blindness, often thought of as a handicap in the sciences, becomes irrelevant when the subject matter is invisible anyway. To encourage vision-impaired students to enter the field, Greenberg and other researchers at the school are building three-dimensional models, inches long, that faithfully re-create nanoscale structures and surfaces—similar to the molecular models made of colored balls and rods from your high-school chemistry class, only more accurate.

Technically, the models are just another way of representing the same data that sighted students use when they look at "pictures" of nanoscale objects. "There's a lot in science that's perceived as being visual, but vision is nothing essential to the concepts or even the raw data," says Mark Riccobono of the National Federation of the Blind. "No one looks at atoms on a daily basis. No one's putting their eye to the Hubble telescope. The data can be manipulated any way you want ... And new discoveries come when someone sees something—not necessarily in the literal sense—from a new perspective."