All in the mind's eye

Children who are blind get a feel for the solar system at an astronomy seminar.

Published May 27, 2007

TAMPA - The kids crowded into the small room on the second floor of the Wyndham Westshore.

The woman stood before them.

"What I'm going to do, " said Noreen Grice, an astronomer from the Boston Museum of Science, "is take you on a trip around the solar system."

How do you show Pluto to a kid who has trouble finding a chair? How do you explain the heavens to those who have never seen the sky?

Grice lifted a battery-powered lantern and handed it to the child on her left.

"What is the name of the star in our solar system?" she asked.

"The sun, " a girl responded.

"The sun, " said Grice. "And the sun is very hot."

The boy with the lantern held it close to his face, then passed it along.

"What is the closest planet to the sun?" Grice asked.

"Mercury, " someone else said.

"Do you think that Mercury is hot or cold?" Grice asked.

"Hot, " they all replied.

Grice passed to the children a dish full of pebbles covering a heating pad. The kids ran their fingers over the warm rocks.

"It's hot, " said Matthew Dowell, 12, from Apopka.

"It looks like it's got sea shells inside, " said Winona Brackett, 11, from Stuart.

And so it went. Venus was a warm towel. Earth was moist soil. Mars was cold sand. Uranus was a tilted cane. Jupiter was soapy cotton balls.

"Ewww, " said 3-year-old Shadrack Clanton, from Zephyrhills.

Potatoes represented asteroids. Neptune's moon, Triton, was a cantaloupe.

Saturn, in full glory, was represented by 6-year-old John Pearson, spinning circles with a Hula-Hoop.

And in a little hotel room at the National Federation for the Blind of Florida's annual conference, a few kids stood up and walked forward and laughed as they touched the cosmos.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813-661-2443.