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Blind Optical Physicist Pursues Technical Career with the Aid of Mathematica

"I would like my experience and success with the use of Mathematica to be an inspiration for other blind individuals who are considering a technical profession."

Chuck Strickland is an optical physicist at a top government agency. He uses Mathematica to develop and test algorithms that are used to design optical systems for space telescopes. He is also blind.

Becoming a physicist and working in the space program became a major goal for Strickland when he was about nine years old. Because he was blind, he knew that he would have to learn all that he could about computers in order to efficiently follow a technical career path. Strickland is able to use computers with special input and output devices designed for blind individuals. One of these devices is an electronic notepad and display device that enables him to write and review "refreshable Braille." Another is a small camera connected to a tactile display made of vibrating pins that essentially allow him to feel pictures.

Strickland began using Mathematica while working on his master's degree in physics at Southwest Texas State University. Strickland's master's degree includes coursework in general relativity, and he used Mathematica to complete both class-related and personal research. "I found learning the syntax of the Mathematica language and the command structure to be very user friendly and consequently painless," he says.

While working on his Ph.D. at the University of California, Riverside, Strickland used Mathematica to study a variety of subjects from quantum mechanics to phyllotaxis. Later, as a professor of physics at Truman State University, he created a Mathematica routine that would play specified tones to demonstrate beat frequency to his students.

To aid his technical writing, Strickland developed a Mathematica program that converts Braille into rich text. He inputs Braille into his computer with an electronic notepad that stores the Braille in its internal memory. The notepad's electronic display allows Strickland to edit and review the Braille. When he is satisfied with his work, Strickland transfers the electronic Braille to his PC where the Mathematica program converts it to rich text. The rich text can then be manipulated with a word processor. Strickland has also written Mathematica procedures that replace certain character sequences with equations or other graphics.

As an optical physicist, Strickland currently uses Mathematica in the preliminary phase of optical system design. At this early stage, simulating theoretical models is much faster and more cost effective than building physical models. With Mathematica, Strickland constructs a very basic theoretical model that traces only one or two light rays through the optical system's lenses, mirrors, prisms, and diffraction gratings. Says Strickland, "Mathematica helps reveal the subtleties of the design."

Although Strickland's journey has not been a typical one, he believes that technology will make it possible for more people to follow in his footsteps. In his own words, "I would like my experience and success with the use of Mathematica to be an inspiration for other blind individuals who are considering a technical profession."

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