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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Accessibility in Physics

CKM Parameters (RG colorblind)

CKM Parameters (RG colorblind)


One of the best known modern physicists is confined to a wheelchair. One could then think that experimental halls would be cutting edge with ramps and wide hallways. This is certainly not the case, but the lack of wheelchair accessibility is likely due to the age of the buildings. My building at SLAC doesn’t have an elevator, but the building nextdoor has two. It is possible to get to the second floor of the other building and come directly to my building, but the passageway is blocked due to construction. Presumably accommodations would have been made had someone needed the elevator regularly. Back at MIT I worked on a floor only reachable by stairs and a freight elevator which a prominently displayed “no passengers” sign. These problems are inherent to old buildings, so physics is likely no better or worse than other fields for wheelchair accessibility.

Fluctuations in CMB (RG Colorblind)

Fluctuations in CMB (RG Colorblind)

What about something like color blindness? Physics relies heavily on color as a way to present lots of information at once. A graph can have over a dozen different lines and regions – representing different theories or measurements – each one a different color and pattern. Astrophysics data is often represented as a color field plot since the goal is to show variation over the 2-dimensional sky. Luckily, the color palettes for these images are usually chosen well. As a scientist I never think about these things – I use the default color schemes of my plotting programs. I also know how important they can be: the COBE/WMAP data would not be as nuanced if in black and white, and the complicated Standard Model parameter plots would be indiscernible without many colors.

This issue caught me off-guard in the class I TA. We were studying spectroscopy, so students were supposed to identify and measure the different colored lines of Mercury, Sodium, or Hydrogen. One student was having difficulty, since he wasn’t sure what color line he was seeing. This shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me – both of my Junior High science teachers were color blind.

Mercury Spectrum, which actually spans the full spectrum (RG Colorblind)

Mercury Spectrum, which actually spans the full spectrum (RG Colorblind)

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of quickly trying to explain a plot by stating the meaning of the red, blue, or green lines on a plot during a talk. While my student was able to ask his lab mates to help identify the color of the line, an audience member may not be able to clarify whether I am referring to the top and bottom line. I know I’ve put colored text over other colors (such as in a CAD drawing) – were the labels clear to everyone? If 7% of men in the US can’t distinguish red from green, there is a good chance a few people are seeing a well-attended talk different from everyone else.

While I can’t install more elevators, I can make my talks accessible to people with red-green colorblindness. The tool I used to generate the images is Vischeck, and there are many more tools available to help develop color palettes and check images.

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