It sounds like exactly the kind of evil plan that would be dreamed up by a comically inept super villain with only a limited understanding of exactly what it is that 3D printing can accomplish: “If I can’t make the universe submit to me…I’ll just 3D print my own universe and make myself its ruler! Mwahahahahahaha!” If you don’t see any new articles from me in the coming weeks, you’ll know that I’ve been contacted by the executive of a major Hollywood studio in order to turn this idea into a full-length film.
In reality, however, the plans to 3D print the universe are born of a much more noble desire: to share its beauty with those who have visual impairments. For too long it has been assumed that those whose eyesight fails them simply could not experience anything that the sighted considered to be primarily visual input. This effectively blinded people to the forms of things, the barrier wasn’t sight itself but the failure to recognize alternative ways of exploring and understanding.
Louis Braille, blinded by an accident when he was only three, was a pioneer in the recognition that the lack of sight was a disability only when design failed to rise to the occasion. He worked throughout the course of his short life to create a system by which the visually impaired could take in the written word through a system of touch. Although only really recognized after his death, the method he developed effectively removed the wall around written communication that had previously been seen as impermeable. In this case, Braille was speaking of the system of conveying the written word through touch, but he could just as easily have been talking about the potential for 3D printing to create a portal to an enormous number of possibilities for the conveyance of information:
“Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”
It was in the spirit of moving beyond pity that Dr. Thomas Madura decided to lead an effort to re-present the universe in physical terms, using 3D printing. This is, clearly, no small task. After all, it’s the universe. Luckily, as a member of the team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Dr. Madura has access to the know how to make this into more than just a big dream. In fact, they’ve already begun creating digital and physical models of elements of the universe, such as the binary star Eta Carinae and releasing the digital files to the public so that they can be easily accessed by anyone interested.
The only real barrier that remains in this ambitious project is access to the funding necessary to support the project. As such, Dr. Madura has turned to crowdfunding in the hopes that they can raise the money needed to carry on this work. NASA’s budget is at all time low and there isn’t currently any glowing light at the end of the tunnel to provide hope that it will rise and so projects like this, that aim to educate and engage are having more difficulty than ever obtaining funds.
The 3D Printed Universe project has set a $15,000 goal for the first phase of this effort. This money would cover the costs of donating 3D printed model sets to schools for the visually impaired, develop the lesson plans that would be used in conjunction with the models, and to assess the effectiveness of this combination of models and lessons in terms of education for students with visual impairments. Dr. Madura has issued a compelling call for assistance:
“If you are someone who appreciates astronomy, space science, and the study of the Universe, or just science in general, we ask that you please help us bring that same sense of wonder and appreciation to others, specifically, the visually impaired. Your help will allow us to inspire and educate a new, often neglected audience. The students we reach may, as a result of this work, end up pursuing scientific careers, possibly leading to world-changing discoveries that benefit all of us, including future generations.”
For a full description of all of the team’s plans, visit the website for their campaign – even if you can’t contribute financially at this point, there are other opportunities to assist in this worthy undertaking. If you do have the resources to donate, the thank you gifts are pretty spectacular.
I hate to mention upcoming holidays wherein people exchange gifts with young, budding scientists, but I imagine a contribution here would ensure a place on the ‘Nice’ list…it’s certainly worth a try. What are your thoughts on this initiative? Let us know in the 3D Print The Universe forum thread on 3DPB.com.
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