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#FoundersFriday with Dr. Coleman Krawczyk from Tactile Universe

9th November 2018
By Katy Alexander

We are very excited to bring you a new interview for our #FoundersFriday blog series! Founders Friday is a forum in which we interview the founders of different businesses, asking them to share their advice for others and their perspective on the industry as a whole.

For this edition, we have interviewed Dr. Coleman Krawczyk (@ColemanKrawczyk). Coleman is an American astrophysicist at the University of Portsmouth and is the technical lead for The Tactile Universe. He is also a data scientist for the Zooniverse working on data aggregation for various citizen science projects.

What is the Tactile Universe?

The Tactile Universe is a public engagement project at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of  Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG) that aims to bring the astronomy research that we do to the blind and visually impaired community. Right now the project’s focus is on galaxies, and what their shapes and colours can tell us about then.

Why is the Tactile Universe needed?

Astronomy is typically thought of as a very visual subject, and this is certainly reflected in the way that the subject is usually communicated to the public. Although, when it comes to the research side of things, this is not the case. Telescopes are controlled robotically, images are taken with digital cameras, and those images are converted into tables of numbers. With the Tactile Universe, we want to make it clear that astronomy can be accessible and that a vision impairment (VI) should not exclude somebody from studying the universe.

Where did the idea for the Tactile Universe come from?

The idea for the project came from my colleague Nic Bonne (@coffee_samurai) who is a blind astronomer himself. He remembered how difficult it was to get into astronomy as a kid, and wanted to make it easier for other children with VI to get into it.

How are the galaxy models made?

We started by using a 3D printer to make our models. We wrote a bit of software that takes any black and white image and creates a 3D model using that image as a height map. The white parts of the image are raised up, the black parts stay flat, and grey parts are scaled to all the heights in between.

We’ve just started playing around with other ways of making those models and we’re now using a wood milling machine that makes better quality versions. These high-quality masters are being used to make silicone moulds, and we will soon go on to make liquid resin casts. The casting process is significantly faster than 3D printing and is helping us to scale up our production.

How will the STFC grant further the Tactile Universe?

Back in April the Tactile Universe received a Nucleus Award from The Science and Technology Facilities Council. In part, this grant is being used to hire me as the technical lead for the project to oversee the production of the models and maintain our website. It is also being used to take our project national by running training sessions for our resources across the UK to make sure any outreach officers, science communicators, or teachers who want to use our kits have a chance to work with us and learn how to use them in a classroom. We are also making a number of kits that we can send out to schools that need them.

Additionally, we’re going to be using the funds to make sure all of our models are freely available and open source, and that all of the software that we use is available and documented. That way, anyone who has an idea of something similar to our project can use our software to build their own models and print them.

Find out more about the incredible work Tactile Universe is doing in the video below.

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