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Undergrad student supports ground-breaking work to create galaxies that blind and visually impaired people can 'see'

Meet Angus Morton

Angus has just finished his 4th year of an Integrated Masters in Astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh. At STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre this summer he has been working with Dr Carolyn Atkins to 3D print galaxies.

What attracted you to this project Angus?

“I have a visual impairment myself, and so I was really interested in the opportunity to help create a physical product that would allow blind and visually impaired people to learn about astronomy research and get as much out of space and our sky as those who can simply look up and see it.

Tactile Universe, based at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth do amazing award-winning work in this field. With support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) through a Nucleus Award all of their resources are available to the wider astronomy communities free of charge. And the data for creating the models are open source, and so it’s the code from the original models created by Tactile Universe that we have used.”

What are you doing differently to what Tactile Universe has already done?

“The Tactile Universe models are printed in one material – where the brighter parts of the galaxy are debossed (they’re raised like little bumps).

Credit: STFC/Angus holding the 1st rough model of a 3D printed model of a galaxy

“Carolyn has access to a multi-material printer through STFC’s additive manufacturing facility at Daresbury Laboratory. She was keen to test if it was possible to make models using different types of materials to add another illustrative layer, for example from a soft rubber to a hard plastic. So in addition to the height difference of the raised bumps in the Tactile Universe models, representing the brightness of different celestial objects in a galaxy, Carolyn wanted to explore how different materials could enhance the physical experience and provide more information. And not only that, a colour gradient can be added too, so that the soft rubber is black, the hard plastic is white, and in between we have grey.

What has been your tasks on the project?

“My first task was to get to grips with the 3D modelling software – called Blender – that has the Python programming language integrated within it. It’s a very versatile piece of open source software with lots of features – and so it was a challenge to wade through that, and understand how I needed to use it to get the outcomes I needed for this project.

“I then input the Tactile Universe code created for the original models into the software, and got that all working before splitting up the code into separate files. This was so that I could specify the volumes printed for the different materials – from the soft rubber to the hard plastic, representing different parts of the galaxy.”

Did it work?

“Yes, there was lots of trouble shooting and de-bugging, which was quite challenging, but it was really exciting when we got a first rough model. It came out pretty well – you can feel the debossed parts and you can feel the different materials, as well as see the contrast between the black, white and grey parts.

“There were improvements we wanted to make, though. The soft rubber was a little floppy, so we wanted to add a solid base. They looked and felt too, like there were two separate galaxies, rather than the main galaxy interacting with a dwarf companion. We wanted the link between the galaxies to be clearer, so the celestial objects between the two galaxies needed to come out more.

“We made those modifications, and you can see in the new models in the photograph, where there are clearly two galaxies interacting.

“I’m really proud of what we have achieved, and I look forward to seeing Carolyn and the team build on the work I’ve contributed to this summer. I’d also love to hear what Tactile Universe think of the work too.”

What’s the experience meant to you?

“It’s been such a useful experience. I’ve used Python extensively, so I know it really well, but it was great to use it integrated in a much more complex piece of software.”

“It’s also been really nice to actually make something, and hold it in my hand. It’s not something you get often with a physics degree.”

“The project was different to what I do at uni, but not so different that I felt lost. So it was nice to feel that I could use and develop my existing knowledge and apply it in a new area for me.”

What’s next for you?

“I will complete the Masters part of my degree this coming academic year, and my Masters project will be on galaxy classification. I’m not sure what I want to do longer-term – maybe software engineering?”


We would like to give Thanks to STFC’s additive manufacturing facility at Daresbury Laboratory for their support. They provided invaluable advice and made available their multi-material printer. Thanks must go too to Tactile Universe, not only for making their code accessible, but for their insightful input.



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Last updated: 31 July 2019


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