«To hack», means to illegally infiltrate an informatic system, but the term is also used by those who want to subvert a system with good actions, and this is the case of Science Hack Day. The gathering, which welcomes anyone open to team up and play with science, is a consecutive 24 hour laboratory. Events like this are conquering the world. So far there have been 25, with 5 in the San Francisco area. We did not camp out but we did spend a full long day talking to many “hackers”, watching their projects evolve and feeling the energy of collective quirkiness grow, under the creative spell of Ariel Waldman, who created and animated this science hack day. In 2013 she was nominated “Champion of Change in citizen science” by the White House. Waldman is a member of the National Academy of Science council for studies on the future of space flights and member of the external council at NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts.
Our goal for this Science Hack Day was to develop a way that people could do DNA sequencing at home. I’ve been running this machine as a print service for the whole weekend Hack-a-thon and we just print whatever anybody wants. We’re working on Mind Sumo, a battle of the wits, two laser beams posed against each other and the person who is more Zen, whoever can meditate the best will win. Making a dinosaur, a robotic dinosaur, dance based on crowd movements using lasers. If everyone dances together, the dinosaur’s happy, and it dances. If everyone dances in a different way, then the dinosaur is sad.
CRISTINA: So Ariel, what is the goal of the Science Hack Day?
W: It is essentially to just get excited and make things with science. It’s really an event about getting all different types of people together from all different types of backgrounds to really see what you can prototype within 24 consecutive hours. So it’s not necessarily about having a formal background in science, but it’s about just feeling that science is something that you can play with whenever you want.
C: What are your favorite ones?
W: Someone created a device that was to detect when he needed to shave that was this USB microscope. And they held it up to his face and they figured out when they needed to shave. Really silly, but a particle physicist saw the hack and thought it was really genius and wrote an entire proposal for how to detect cosmic rays in a cloud chamber using the original hack somebody had used to detect if they needed to shave or not. And so that’s the other cool thing about Science Hack days. It’s not only about people without science backgrounds contributing to science, but it’s also about getting scientists to play with new ideas and new forms and letting them explore and play with things as well. Science Hack Days started in 2010. It started because I put together a panel at South by Southwest about open science. And we were talking on this panel about how we were very frustrated that there’s a lot of open science stuff already out there but nobody was really doing anything with it. And so sitting in the audience was my friend, Jeremy Keith who lives in England, and he decided that it would be great to do a Science Hack Day to sort of get people to play with open science stuff. I think why it came about when it did is because I think there was a large movement to make science open. And everyone was like, “Yes, we need to make science open.”
C: How much has science fiction inspired you?
W: To me science fiction is always just sort of a low level backdrop to everything. So when you’re thinking about why is this interesting or cool, why space exploration is interesting or cool, inherently you’re influenced by some amount of science fiction because science fiction is so great at communicating what if. What if we did this really cool thing? Or what if we took science that existed today and just pushed it a little bit farther?
The People’s Choice Award goes to Dinosaurs and lasers!
C: Is there one that you think will actually break into the world and become a practical tool that can reach many people?
W: Oh, I saw tons of hacks that could be actual tools. Everything from medical tests to a field guide that people could use. So many of them seem to actually have real applications, which was just great.