Get Excited and Make Things with Science

This is the transcript of a panel held at South by Southwest 2012 in Austin, Texas. The panelists are Ariel Waldman, Matt Bellis, and Jeremy Keith.

Ariel: Welcome to Get Excited and Make Things with Science. I hope you all are excited, as it seems like you are.

Was that a cat meow? Jesus!

So yes, welcome to Get Excited and Make Things with Science. We have some lovely slides up here.

This is a launch of some teddy bears into space and so I thought that represented getting excited and making things with science. So this isn’t Photoshop; this is actually a real picture.

And if you want to get really excited, you can hashtag us at #sxgetexcited, but we’ll just start with some brief intros to kick things off.

Jeremy, how did you get here?

Jeremy: Okay, can everybody hear me? This lapel mic thing or should I use this one. Okay, I’ll use this one. That makes it easier.

I got here because of South by South West, actually, which was two years ago? Two years ago when I was here there was an awesome science panel, which was moderated by Tantek who’s sitting there. Ariel was on the panel and a bunch of other citizen scientists. And it was really, really inspiring. It was one of the best panels I’ve seen at South by South West.

A f***ing space elevator

Open Science: Create, Collaborate, Communicate on Huffduffer

But one of the points that was coming across was there was all these APIs out there that people weren’t using. People were having hack days and doing mash-ups, and they were doing stuff with Google Maps or something. We’ve mapped the moon! We’ve mapped Mars! Nobody’s doing hacks and mash-ups with that kind of data.

I distinctly remember sitting in the audience of the panel and turning to my friend and saying, “we should have a Science Hack Day.” And then rather than it just remaining an idea, I did it.

So we had the world’s first Science Hack Day in London later that summer. And it was incredible. We managed to get a venue which was at the Guardian offices in London. We got a bunch of developers into the room and some scientists as well, and it was a lot of fun.

I’ve been to hack days before which is, you know, developers getting together for forty eight hours, essentially hacking straight through for twenty four hours and making something cool. Usually mash-ups and stuff. So it was basically a hack day like that, but with the emphasis on science. In other words, the APIs and the data that you’d be mashing with would be science data, and that was awesome; that showed that it could work and that’s what got me here.

Ariel: Matt?

Matt So, my name’s Matt. I’m a particle physicist by training and I was doing research at Stanford University on BaBar experiments—I’ll mention a little bit more on that later—and the experiment was based at SLAC, which is an international lab on Stanford Campus.

I’d been trying to work with some people in communications there to do some outreach projects, and through that I met Dave Harris, who is a friend of Ariel’s. We tried getting some stuff, but there was just limited resources. He’s like, “well look my friend Ariel’s putting together this Science Hack Day, and some of these outreach ideas, some of the ideas of taking a particle physics data and making it more accessible, you might be able to get other people involved in working on the project.” Then I participated in that first Science Hack Day down in Palo Alto.

Particle Wind Chime demo

It was a great success. I’ve done another one in San Francisco since then. I’ll talk more about those in detail, but that was the path that led me to hack day in general, and Ariel and here.

Ariel: Great. So I’m Ariel and I am on a really awesome panel, because Jeremy is an awesome web developer, Matt’s a great particle physicist.

I myself, however, am neither a programmer or a scientist. I have no background in science and my degree is actually originally in print graphic design. That didn’t really end up going anywhere.

So a few years ago I randomly got a job at NASA. It was amazing. I never expected to work there. It completely changed my life.

Since working at NASA I am now on this mission to really change how we view space exploration. I always like showing this slide because space exploration often changes how we view ourselves and our place in the universe. But I really think we should change how we start viewing space exploration and science, and it being something that you don’t have to have a formal science background to do and to participate.

In a Science Hack Day you don’t need to be a developer or a scientist. Sometimes it helps, but I have proven that you don’t have to be one. So then also I went on to create Science Hack Day San Francisco, after Jeremy created his in London.


So without further ado, Jeremy, do you want to discuss some of your favourite science hacks?

Jeremy: Oh yes!

Ariel: Why they’re awesome.

Jeremy: I’m just going to geek out for a while, and tell you about things I think are awesome; specifically, science hacks.

I remember being at the hack day—not a Science Hack Day, this was one of the official sort of Yahoo! BBC hack days in London at Alexandra Palace—and it was an amazing experience. It was just a fantastic time, and there’s all sorts of hacks and mash-ups and stuff being done, incredibly inspiring stuff.

But one of the ones that I really liked was just really simple, a really simple example of a mash-up. It was this, which is a Twitter account. It’s a Twitter account that’s a bot, and it mashes up just two simple bits of data. One is: when is the ISS flying over, or when there’ll be iridium flares from satellites. The other is: what’s the weather forecast for London right now, because it can get pretty cloudy in London.

So it’s a very simple little Twitterbot that just says, “Hey, the ISS will be flying over and it’s going to be clear outside.” Simple, right? I know everybody makes lots of Twitterbots these days, it’s kind of the “hello world” of mashing up, but this was a few years ago, this was, a pretty cool idea.

I really love the simplicity of that, just taking these two sources of data, putting them together and making something really cool and really useful, that you go outside and see the ISS fly over, which is awesome.

Another example of one of these Twitterbots is Low Flying Rocks, which is really nice. That’s just again taking a feed of information that we have, which is when near earth objects are passing by the earth and just Tweeting when it happens, and interjecting maybe, if it’s a close one, it says, ‘Phew, that was close!’

I love these little Twitterbots like that.

So at the Science Hack Day in Palo Alto, Nathan Bergey—who’s a rocket scientist, amateur rocket scientist in Portland—he was at the Hack Day, and he took this Twitterbot, and he decided he wanted to make a sort of physical representation of it. So he was going to make the Near Earth Object Lamp. Instead of Tweeting when an asteroid was about to pass close to the earth, you’d get a glow; you’d get this ambient signifier.

Near Earth Object Lamp

It was truly a hack. He’s got cups that happen to be lying around the room, an arduino that’s connecting it up to a laptop, LEDs to glow.

Cup hack

You’d just have this thing sitting there, and it glows when there’s rocks flying past. And he actually—here’s a video over here doing it, it was awesome, it was really cool.

That all happened in the course of the Science Hack Day at Palo Alto. Brilliant little idea. There we go: glow away.

He took this one stage further after the Hack Day he thought, “Okay, here’s another idea. What if we went back to that Twitterbot of when the ISS is flying over.” Now, instead of getting a Tweet when the ISS flies over, you’re going to have a lamp that lights up. He put this idea out there and he put it on Kickstarter, and it got funded. So you can now order your ISS lamp that will glow when the ISS is flying over, so you can nip outside, look up in the sky, and see the International Space Station flying over.

I love that hack. I think it’s great. I particularly like it when there’s some sort of physical dimension to the hacks, and especially when it’s taking something from the network and making it physical. I think that’s really nice.

At Science Hack Day in London there were some people making a paper mâché globe of the Earth that had LEDs inside it, again connected with an arduino. But the datastream that they were connecting it to was the aurora borealis, when they were lighting up. So as the auroras were lighting up in real life, you got this beautiful ambient lamp lighting up. Really nice.

Science Hack Day

One of the things about the hack days is it’s always …there’s generally no shortage of developers showing up at hack days which is great, and I really like it when hardware hackers show up too, but it can be tough to get designers showing up at Science Hack Days. Or at hack days in general I would say, it can be tricky to convince the designers to come.

I was really trying to do that in the run-up to the Science Hack Day in London. I was really trying to convince designers to come along. There were a few designers there but it would’ve been nice to have some more.

So at the Science Hack Day in Palo Alto, I wanted to show how design can really help in the story of science and help in telling the story of science and data visualisation. I put together this little hack over the course of the Science Hack Day in Palo Alto. It’s just a simple little web page called Space Lift.

Spacelift, printed

What it does is it just compares the cost of getting a cargo into geosynchronous orbit using various rockets, right? Now the cargo I chose happened to be various fictional spacecraft, like the Millennium Falcon or an X-Wing or Battlestar Galactica. It then compares how many of those rockets it would take and how much it would cost to lift this cargo into orbit. But always ending with how much it would cost with a space elevator.

It’s always cheaper with a space elevator!

I’m trying to tell a fairly obvious story here, which is that we need to build a space elevator, and here’s why. I’m making the financial case and I’m trying to use visualisation to do it. I mean, you can sort of see it when it’s just an X-Wing that you’re trying to lift into geosynchronous orbit, but if it’s a Rebel Blockade Runner, you can clearly see the astronomical—literally—costs it takes …or one space elevator, right?

Papernet spacelift

You can actually then click through any of these and you can see that represented. The cost can be represented as a pile of pennies, and you can see the relationship with that pile of pennies to a space elevator: whether it would be a pile of pennies greater than a space elevator.

Those are all the things that happened at hack days, but there’s a whole bunch of wonderful websites that are kind of in the spirit of Science Hack Day, the spirit of science hacking.

One of those—this is one of my favourite sites on the Web—is

Spacelog: space exploration stories from the original transcripts

Has anyone seen Okay, yeah …one of the creators is sitting right back there: Norm. Hello Norm.

It’s wonderful. It does exactly what I was saying about using design—using a visualisation—to help tell a story.

What Spacelog is, is the transcripts of various NASA missions: Gemini, Mercury, Apollo missions. Those transcripts have been online for a long time. You can go to the NASA site and get them, but they’re just plainly presented. It’s just text, they’re not designed.

With Spacelog, these guys went off to a fort for a week and hacked on making a beautiful website to present this data, this information, and also to create like a linkable resource for every utterance that happened during an Apollo mission or a Gemini mission or a Mercury mission.

It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s ridiculously addictive. When I first saw this, I was like, “Oh I’ll just click through for five minutes”, and half an hour later, I was still just clicking through.

I thought it really showed how design can be so powerful. There wasn’t anything new on Spacelog. All the data existed already, but by putting it into this beautifully designed website, it came alive: it really came alive.

The ability to then link to any utterance from an astronaut was kind of cool. Nice, tweetable soundbites which led me to discover that Michael Collins is by far the coolest of all the Apollo astronauts. He’s my hero now.

So I like Spacelog. Spacelog is awesome.

Something else that isn’t directly related to Science Hack Day is—after Science Hack Day worked, it showed that it did work and if I could organise it, anybody could organise, because it’s really not my bag to be organising events—but Matt Patterson put together a History Hack Day in the same venue. He went to the Guardian, said “we want to do a History Hack Day”, taking lots of data to do with history and mashing it up and all that kind of stuff.

Frances and Tom

There was some wonderful stuff came out of that. Again with visualisations, this was taking Wikipedia edits of historical events. They’ve got timestamps and they’ve also got lat:long co-ordinates, and just visualising that over time. It’s a history of the world in a hundred edits, or it is basically just a hundred seconds of world history condensed down.

It’s again, beautiful, using design to tell that story.

I think there’s quite a large opportunity to mash up science and history. Some of my other favourite hacks I would say exist in that space of where science and history mash up together.

A site that would be right up there with Spacelog as one of my favourite sites on the internet would be Old Weather. Has anybody seen Old Weather? Okay.

Old Weather has this wonderful meeting of science and history. It’s made by the same guys who gave us Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo and all this stuff: the Zooniverse people. They’ve made these wonderful websites that allow people to participate in science. You can literally be a citizen scientist.

With Galaxy Zoo, you’re classifying galaxies. This is stuff that’s not that hard for human beings, because we look at a picture of a galaxy, we can see, oh it’s got spiral arms, or oh, it’s globular. That’s actually very hard for a computer, that kind of OCR is really hard.

So it’s allowing people to contribute to this classification, and not in some kind of mechanical turk, farmed out way. If you discover something on Galaxy Zoo and somebody writes a paper about it, you are one of the co-authors of that paper. It is true citizen science.

Anyway: Galaxy Zoo, awesome, fantastic All the sort of stuff they were doing, fantastic. But Old Weather, probably my favourite of all, because what Old Weather was doing was taking log books from the start of the twentieth century—from ships at the start of the twentieth century—and these log books are filled with observation. Dates, times, latitudes, longitudes; observations on the weather, barometric pressure. All written by human beings in longhand in these log books. Very, very hard for a computer to parse, but we can read it and we can hopefully make out what’s being said. So they built the site to allow people to come to the site and essentially transcribe these log books.

There’s a slight bit of gamification because you move up in rank on the ship the more you log. I’m just a cadet on this ship now, but I could become the lieutenant and then I could become the captain of the ship. But that’s not really the reason for doing it.

The reason for doing it is you’re helping science. You’re putting all this data—getting all this data out of these old log books—and making it machine readable, which is absolutely wonderful.

So Old Weather is right up there for me.

And it turns out the reason for doing this isn’t just, “Oh we need to digitise this stuff and it would be nice to have it on the Web.” This is climate data. But now it’s climate data that stretches back to the start of the twentieth century. So scientists doing climate modelling can now have much better models because they have data that stretches further back than their instruments, which is absolutely wonderful.

So that is definitely right up there as one of my favourite hacks.

I’ll stop geeking out about hacks now!

Ariel: I don’t think that’s the end of us geeking out about it.

Matt, what are your geeky, awesome hacks?

Matt: So, geeking out phase 2.

As I mentioned, I’m a particle physicist and in 2008 I started working on the BaBar experiment. This was an experiment that ran at SLAC International Lab on Stanford Campus. Over about ten years from ‘99 to about 2008 they collided matter and anti-matter, electrons and positrons, and collected a few petabytes of data to analyse.

The end goal was to actually try to understand the difference between matter and anti-matter and why the universe that we mostly see is made up of matter and not anti-matter. This table is matter. The stars, as far as we can tell, are matter and not anti-matter.

You may or may not have heard of some of the experiments going on at CERN at the LHC. This is a screenshot of the CMS experiment. I like this phrase from Ariel, these are space time smashers. These are colliding protons and overlapping their wave functions in space-time. You’re looking for the Higgs Boson and signs of super-symmetry. These are all very complicated analyses.

The analyses that I did at BaBar, even though it’s a smaller detector, it’s no less challenging. There’s numbers that you’re parsing through just streams of recorded information about these particles; the momentum, the energies, where they went. At the end of the day, you’re going to try to make a statement about how nature works.

Now the first level that you start to interact with the data are what I would call an event display. So what you’re seeing here is this 2D representation of this 3D mini-fireball, if you want, in the detector and where these particles went. All these layers of the detector are optimised to measure different things.

We don’t actually look at pictures like this until we’re doing some sort of diagnostic. Usually you look at a billion different collisions and you make some histogram, some plots and you try to summarise. Then you usually only use this for diagnostics. But looking at these helps you build up some intuition about what you’re trying to understand, not about just the physics but about the performance of the detector.

So when I was at Post Doc at Carnegie Mellon I started mucking around trying to sonify some of my data, trying to take my data, this multi-dimensional data-set and turn it into sound. I got some things that kind of half worked, but it was rattling around in my head.

Then when David Harris come to me and said, “Oh, there’s this Science Hack Day that’s going to be going on down the street, there might be some people that might want to work with you on this.” Because I was stuck. I do a lot of coding in C++ and Python and stuff, but I don’t know what’s the right language to do sonification or even visualisation a lot of this stuff. So he’s like, “Oh, I think there’s going to be some people that would like to help you on this, maybe learn about this and maybe you can get a group together.”

So we did.

I brought some BaBar data which was text files that I had to explain to them. I said, “Okay, this is where it’s going in the detector in this direction, and this is the energy, this is the velocity if you want that.” And over the course of the twenty four hours, we hacked together this very, very barely held together with duct tape and code that was able to produce sounds, based on the data.

We got it working at midnight. People had been hearing us in this room sequestered, like “You guys are serious!”


Everybody else is doing robots and these cool lights and we were all trying to understand this stuff. All of a sudden we started getting sounds. And there was people that came in, they were like, “Oh what is that?” I’m like, “Well, that’s the decay of a B-meson, and it’s decaying to these things.” And they’re like, “decay of a what?” I’m like, “Oh well, let me tell you about a B-meson now; now that I’ve hooked you with these cool sounds and stuff.”

There was a moment in the night actually where these people that were working with us that were from Yahoo! and physicists that weren’t particle physicists and designers that were… I’d explain stuff to them, and at some point in the middle of the night they started talking like particle physicists. They were like, “Well, what shall we do with particle ID?” which is this very, very jargony term in our field, you know. “What should a muon sound like?” “What should a pion sound like?” “Well this is cos data, so if we turn it into X and Y, how do we…”

Particle Windchime team

And it was amazing, because these people were not particle physicists, but if I had any of my collaboration walk in, they would’ve thought that they were trying to do a real analysis. And it was just fantastic.

So again, we had this website that was just held together by bleeding edge code. We wanted something live that people could map energy onto volume, and momentum onto timbre, and energy on some duration of the notes; make this mapping from these parameters that we were measuring and doing physics analysis to some sort of aural sonic quality.

We had something that just barely worked, but it wasn’t completely live. But we were able to demonstrate these sounds.

The fascinating thing was I started as me, because I was trained, I could start to hear differences in these particle decays. So this B-meson actually sounds very different than a …what’s called a light quark jet, and it doesn’t matter what that is, but know that I can hear these things. I started to realise, “God, you could start to use this to really develop an intuition for your data that maybe you didn’t have before!”

So because we’ve got it here, I’m going to play a little twenty second snippet of what a B decay sounds like, at least according to the mapping that I chose.

Did anybody hear that? Is that going through out there? No. Microphone check. You want to do that there?

So again the idea was that these things are playing the detector.

As they pass through the detector, it’s like the wind through a wind chime; they’re playing parts of the detector and you get to choose what they sound like.

Some particles move faster than others. Some of them are really slow. If you stretch out the time into nanoseconds or picoseconds, you get to hear them.

What was nice for me is that I could use this now. I could sit down and talk with people about the tools that we were using, kind of bootstrap this idea. Now I could start to develop a little visual aid.

So in my spare time I came out with this app. You can download it from my website. There’s a little control panel that allows you to choose what mappings you have. It’s written in mostly Processing. Whether or not it works today as opposed to six months ago I can’t guarantee.

This was one of my favourite hacks because it was very personable and again it was very inspiring to work with people that were interested in science. I feel like I kind of infected them with a little bit of knowledge.

Now I participated in the next Science Hack Day which was just last October, I believe, and I brought… November, and I brought some data from the LHC and we did a hack and some visualisations. And it was really cool. People liked working with fresh hot-off-the-presses data from the LHC.

But for me what was very interesting as a scientist—and trying to get some feedback also out of this—was this person did what they called the Beard Recognition Hack.

They took this little USB microscope and as you run it over your face, you get this image of whether or not you have little stubble (and I should just make mention that this girl that’s using it, that’s not a screenshot of what she has. These are mixed up. It’s not …I don’t know who she is, but I just want to let you know, hers was actually registering that it’s not beardy.)

What was neat was I could look at this code that was posted on GitHub, and I was like, “Oh there’s actually some really simple Python pattern recognition that just looks at contrast, and so it can identify lines.”

Now why that’s interesting to me is that when we’re teaching students, we use these cloud chambers that use isopropyl alcohol and form a very low, thin layer where it condenses. If you have radioactive particles that go through—like in the upper right there—you get these tracks where the isopropyl alcohol condenses along the track.

But it’s just something you watch, and if you let it sit there and you don’t put a radioactive element in it, every minute or two you actually get these muons that are produced by cosmic rays high up in the atmosphere. But it only happens every minute or so, and there’s no real way for data logging for this type of little mini-experiment.

So just by seeing this, I’m like, “God, could we use a webcam and then use this very simple software to do contrast recognition for whether these tracks are and actually use this to record and maybe do a project where students could build something like this from scratch, and then measure cosmic ray flux from the upper atmosphere.”

I’m a research scientist right now at Northern Illinois University and in the fall I’m going to be starting a gig as a Professor at Sienna College in upstate New York. I’ve applied for funding to try to get something like this together: put together a website that shows people how to build their own and everything.

But the point is that I would not have really thought about this idea unless I’d been going to these Hack Days. I think it’s real interesting the amount of information we have online and in blogs and posts, but face-to-face interaction is just a whole other level.

Again, as a scientist, I’m taking time out of my research to do this and I think outreach is incredibly important. It’s one of the most important things we can do. It was really this prime example of where there was this feedback from these Hack Day communities.

I think that’s where I’m going to end for now and let Ariel, and just emphasise, for scientists, I think these Hack Days that these guys are putting together can be a real game-changer in exploring these other communities that as scientists we don’t always have access to.

Ariel: I just think it’s really bragworthy to say that a Beard Detecting Hack inspired cosmic ray detection. It’s unexpected, which is awesome.

Atually I guess a lot of these things are related to my favourite science hacks. My favourite kind of science hacks really tap into invisibility. This is really because of the idea that ninety five per cent of everything is invisible. And when I say ninety five per cent of everything is invisible, it’s because when you look at all of the matter and all of the energy in the entire universe, seventy four percent is dark energy, twenty two per cent is dark matter, less than five per cent is all visible matter.

If you take out intergalactic gas, which—how often do we look at that? Not that often, it’s up in the pretty NASA pictures—the rest, all the stars in the universe, all the planets, everything in this room, everything on this planet makes up less than half of a per cent in the universe.

We are very much the etcetera in the universe. There’s all this invisible stuff around us all the time.

Dark Matter is really some of the coolest invisible stuff, I think. Dark Matter is really, essentially when you look at galaxies and how they’re held together, there’s not enough matter that accounts for the amount of gravity that’s needed to really hold us all together. The placeholder name for that is dark matter. All these weakly interacting particles that we can’t easily detect that are holding us all together, and it’s kind of in this globular form that you can see here.

It’s really great because we have this invisible thing that’s holding us together. It’s not actually the power of love that’s holding us together, but it’s the power of Dark Matter.

And so in a lot of ways this is a very friendly universe, we have this lovely adorable friend called Dark Matter that’s keeping us all together and that’s awesome.

But there’s also the opposite fact. We have a very evil sort of thing in the universe called Dark Energy. Dark Energy is actually trying to push us all apart. Not necessarily on the atomic level but we see it more with galaxies that are distant; they’re being pushed further and further apart, and so when we look in the universe and we see that we’re expanding, we’re actually expanding way faster than scientists think we should be expanding. We call that Dark Energy.

So absolutely ninety five per cent of everything is invisible. And hacks that tap into invisibility, to me, are really exciting and really weird, like this one.

This is a hack called Animal Superpowers. It wasn’t created at a Science Hack Day but it’s really cool.

Essentially the idea is that you wear a helmet and a couple of gloves and you navigate the Earth beneath you. You can see the Earth as seen from the perspective of an ant. You get animal superpowers by acting like you’re an ant for a day and actually getting this really magnified view of the Earth, which is kind of cool.

But the sort of invisibility superpowers can sometimes make you look dorky, like that previous hack, and this one. This is a belt that vibrates every time you face north. If you were at Amber Case’s keynote the other day, she mentioned it. The idea with this is that you began to understand how to navigate a city more intuitively if you wear this for a few weeks, as opposed to visually.

The idea of tapping into invisibility as a superpower is really tapping into the idea of sense affordances. I think this touches on a little bit of the particle wind-chime as well. Different senses have different affordances and so sometimes our ears can hear something better than our eyes can see them.

Different senses can make things visible that were otherwise invisible to us. Some people actually experience this naturally through synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is essentially where you have different senses that are crossing their wires. Some people with synaesthesia report actually associating letters with different colours. Some people have reported that when they hear a really loud sound, they see a ripple across their vision, and other cool things like that.

Tapping into synaesthesia—this superpower that some of us have but not all of us have—a group of hackers at Science Hack Day created a really creepy hack called Syneseizure. I’ll just let you all react to that for a moment.

Science Hack Day SF

Syneseizure is a hack that came out of Science Hack Day in November. The idea was that they wanted to simulate what it was like to be synaesthetic. So they created this mask which I’ll walk though. It’s this really, really creepy mask, but it’s really awesome.

Science Hack Day / Photo courtesy of Brightworks School

Essentially what they did is they took a bunch of vibrating speakers and they attached it to someone’s head, I think twelve different vibrating speakers. Because it was a Hack Day, they only had twenty four hours to make a mask, so the only mask pattern that they could find in twenty four hours was an open mask pattern for a gimp mask. So they created this gimp mask. They sewed it themselves. They came here with practically nothing, and they sewed this gimp mask up with all the vibrating speakers.

Science Hack Day SF

They wired it all up to an arduino where the mouth should be—as you can see—and a webcam, with the idea being that any information that comes through the webcam, different parts of your face start vibrating. You can actually start feeling sight and feeling where parts of the room are darker and where parts of the room are lighter. And so you get to wear this really creepy mask and navigate around and try and feel where different parts of the room are.

It was just a lot of fun and it’s really cool to be able to tap into your different senses that way.

Similarly, there’s also a few hacks that tap into different things, maybe a little less creepy.

Someone wanted to create a font that was based on wind drag. They created a makeshift wind tunnel, and they recorded the wind drag of each of these letters. They wanted to make a font that was …all the letters had equal wind drag in them.

I don’t know why this would be useful necessarily, but if you want a typeface that has equal wind drag, this is what it looks like. They actually went through and recorded all these. This is what a typeface with equal wind drag looks like. Something you don’t normally see visible to you but now it is, so make use of it somehow.

There’s also this hack which was more … bio based.

What you’re actually seeing here is the extraction of strawberry DNA. But they’re extracting the strawberry DNA using all edible materials. They wanted to create a DNAquiri, so to speak, using all drinkable, edible materials, so that you could actually have a cocktail where you were drinking extracted DNA.

DNA / Photo courtesy of Matt Biddulph

Just for note, it was absolutely disgusting! It was really, really gross, and lots and lots of alcohol as you can expect.

What you’re actually seeing in this picture is these polymers are really long, so when you extract DNA, even though it’s really tiny, the strings essentially are so long that they all start globbing up together so you can visibly see it.

There’s been another panel that’s at South By—unfortunately I think it was right before ours—but it was talking about weather balloon payloads. Of course weather balloon payloads are becoming a lot more ubiquitous. They’re just really exciting because you get to see Earth from a site that you normally don’t see. Either you get to see the curvature of the Earth if you’re going thirty kilometres up.

grassroots mapping

In this project they were actually mapping the ground of the Earth, so they tried to do a grass roots aerial mapping project using these weather balloons and just a simple camera.


So if you’re kind of thinking about all these things and thinking “Wow, how could I make a synaesthesia mask where I can walk around in Austin all the time and freak people out?” or if you would just rather hack on your own science ideas, that might be less creepy, where can you start?

Jeremy, do you have any recommendations on what people can do today that could help them get started in science hacking?

Jeremy: Yeah. I’ll come at it from the Web side of things rather than the physical hardware side. And if you do any mash-ups and web development you’re probably familiar with all these already. But I think scientists certainly can benefit from knowing about these tools that are out there, available and free.

I was talking about data visualisation earlier and how important and how useful a tool that can be. There’s the Google Chart API. It started off fairly rudimentary, and now there’s quite a lot you can do with it. It’s nice.

Some articles have been written about. There’s documentation on the Google site, but there’s articles been written about how to use it from people like Brian Suda who wrote a whole book about designing with data.

I find it can be quite useful, especially if you’ve got twenty four hours to hack something together and you need to have graphs and charts and things. It’s pretty nice.

Another useful took for developers is something from Yahoo! called YQL. Now it is from Yahoo! so it could be switched off tomorrow for all we know.

It’s like a meta API. This is like an API for APIs. There’s lots of websites out there have APIs, but then you’ve got to learn the API of each website. You’ve got to learn the Flickr API and you’ve got to learn the Amazon API, now you’ve got to learn the Guardian API or whatever. This tries to even the playing field by allowing you to use one syntax to mash up data from all these different APIs.

The syntax it uses is essentially SQL. So if you’re familiar with querying databases, it’s like that, except that now instead of querying databases, you’re querying the Web. You select from Flickr where tag = trending topic on Twitter. Mashing stuff up together.

It’s just quite useful. At Science Hack Day London we had some lightning talks at the start, partly from scientists and partly from Web people. Christian Heilmann, who was working at Yahoo! at the time, gave a talk about YQL; just demo’d it, showed what you could do with it. There was a whole bunch of different scientists in the room who were like, “Wow, we had no idea this existed. And all these plans for projects that we thought would take months, we could maybe do really quickly using these tools.”

So I find that quite useful.

And then finally just one that I think in general is so useful to any kind of mash up and development is the fact that we have GitHub now.

It can seem overwhelming: sometimes you have an idea but you can’t finish it or you can’t bring it to fruition. Throw it up there on GitHub and allow other people to take it and fork it and run with it and feed stuff back to you.

GitHub’s been great for collaboration in general, and can also be really good for finishing those hacks you started the Hack Day but never quite get around to finishing.

So those are just a few that I find pretty useful.

Ariel: And Matt, what are your recommendations for what people should be doing today from your perspective?

Matt: What people could be doing?

Ariel: Could be doing.

Matt: Could be doing.

I think that there is a tremendous benefit from coming to places like South By South West, the Science Hack Days, seeing what people are doing, getting really inspired, going and reading, following the science podcasts and stuff. But from interacting with everybody, I think there’s another level that can be gone, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with getting your hands dusty (I’m going to use—again Ariel came up with this line and I think it’s right).

I think we all have the capability of learning a lot more than we think we can, or maybe a lot more than we know now. I think that we can all have that capability: actually get some of the old text books if we want or old physics books, statistics especially, and go through them and try to really learn what these things are.

I think the people that I worked with at the Science Hack Days, like at this most recent one in San Francisco with the LHC data, we started actually going through the equations that Newton told us relates energy, momentum and mass. Then we went to the equations that Einstein taught us relate energy, momentum and mass. People are perfectly capable of learning these things. I think when you really learn it and when you grok it and when you sit down for an hour a week even, it changes how you view the world. It’s changed how I see even just casual talks.

I think that there’s so much available on the Web with Khan Academy, MIT is putting lectures online from its introductory physics and statistics course. Stanford has got a YouTube channel with lectures from its physics and statistics course. It changes how you view the world when you really sit down and go through it. It sounds kind of stodgy and boring, but it’s not when you go out into the world or you go to a conference like this and you look at things differently.

Early this morning, they had an asteroid panel, and Phil Plait or Platt?

Ariel Plait.

Matt: Plait, Bad Astronomer, is talking about if he had all the planets aligned, it would be only one fiftieth the gravitational pull of the moon. I’m thinking, “Wait, is that right?” And I’m thinking, this is a perfect problem I could give my students. It’s very simple. It’s only got a couple of equations, you can look up the information on Wikipedia.

When you do something like that, you have this tremendous self of satisfaction. I’m starting to really understand the universe. I think that these events are great inspiration, but I think there is something we can go and take it to the next level and again, not just physics, but statistics. I think when you understand statistics—which is so important in my analysis—it kind of changes how you view the culture and the way the media relates stuff to you.

So again it sounds kind of boring, but with the amount of stuff online that you can learn from, I think we’re at a different level. It’s much easier and much maybe less boring to learn this stuff.

Ariel: Thanks. So my recommendations for people are really to go to Hack Days or organise Hack Days, because they are pure joy. Like this guy with the Nabaztag, which is awesome. Poor Nabaztags don’t work any more that much, but I love them.

Hack Days are really awesome. For me it’s really about being a spark for future collaborations or future ideas or future things to come out of. They’re really, really just meant to have fun and have really unexpected things come out of them, …like having cosmic ray detection come out of a Beard Detector Hack is the weirdest thing I’ve heard, possibly weirder than the Syneseizure mask.

But it’s all about this unexpected sort of stuff. Nowadays I hear a lot of people talking about Hackathons and Codathons as these things where you’re going to create this well-polished solution for your city or other things like that. And while that’s great, to me, Hack Days aren’t really about creating products. It’s not about that.

If you want to make a hack that detects when you need to shave, go for it. It shouldn’t have to end up being a product. It should just be something awesome that you’re really excited about and you don’t know where it’s going and that doesn’t matter. That’s what Hack Days are really for.

So if you haven’t been to a Hack Day, I really encourage you to do so. Specifically with Science Hack Day, it’s now become a global thing, thankfully, thanks to some help from the Sloan Foundation. Science Hack Day is actually happening all over the world.

The next one I think is in Nairobi in April. Then in May there’s one in Chicago. There’s going to be one in Iceland in June, I think. They’re happening all over.

But if they’re not happening in your town, we’ve actually open-sourced instructions for how to create a Science Hack Day in your city. So if you go to, you can actually figure out how to make one happen in your city, which I definitely encourage.

Mostly it’s just about getting excited. Even if you don’t go to a Science Hack Day, do this on your own weekend; just get excited and make stuff with friends. It’s just really awesome. You don’t need to be a developer and you don’t need to be a scientist. You can be anyone and just make stuff. All you have to have really is just this amazing passion for, “Oh my God, that’s so creepy and awesome” like I have with so many things.

So that’s really about it. So actually, let’s see. We have maybe about fifteen minutes or so for questions, so if you guys want to start thinking about questions and coming up to the mic, feel free to start doing so now.

We’re happy to take questions. Do keep them short and sweet. We don’t necessarily need to know your life story because we will be here afterwards and we’re happy to talk to you about that. So if you have any problems or emotional uncertainties, we can talk to you about that after the panel. We’ll be here all day, folks.

But in the meantime, if you have short and sweet questions, please feel free to come up to the mic and we’re happy to help.

Audience: That was awesome, thank you guys.

I’m just curious to hear just from the experiences you’ve had if any of you have maybe some quick stories or examples of where you’ve seen youth getting involved, youth being impacted. Just thinking about my own kids and middle school age kids and even younger, but just getting kids involved with seeing science in a new way. Just curious from your experiences if you have some insight on that to share some ideas for things to consider with getting younger kids kind of excited about some of this stuff you’re talking about?

Jeremy: Well I do have something.

This is not so much a bottom-up hack, more of a top-down project, but one of the other lightning talks at the start of the Science Hack Day in London was from some people that are working with the Wellcome Trust.

The Wellcome Trust is like, I guess, a UK equivalent of the Sloan Foundation: non-profit, dedicated to furthering science and understanding. They’re working on this project that’s in parallel with the Olympics, to get young kids to kind of understand the science of exercise and sport and all that stuff.

So again, talking about data and physical objects, this is going the other way. This is about taking data from sensors and getting it onto the Web. I’m not sure at what stage this project is right now, but the idea was they would have sensors for kids.

Now it used to be that getting sensors on a human body to measure things like heart rate and metabolism and all this stuff, it was expensive and it was bulky, but thanks to Moore’s Law and all sorts of things, they’re getting really, really small and really, really cheap.

So they were demoing this thing that was like a bouncing rubber ball. It was really durable and you could bounce it round. The kids could run around with that, and then hopefully see what to do with that data. They were looking for ideas: what shall we do with this data? If we’re going to collect all this wonderful data with these sensors, what can we do with it?

And there were some issues around privacy, obviously, because we’re dealing with children here, but it was a really interesting project. I’ll see if I can find a URL to it and point it your way. That’s the one I can think of off the top of my head about involving kids with science.

Ariel: Yeah, at Science Hack Day, San Francisco, we had a bunch of kids show up and so far, kids are welcome to come, but mostly it’s adults who come, just because a lot of my work focus is on getting people who are otherwise forgotten about, or forgotten to the science industry, which happens to be adults who chose different careers.

But a bunch of kids ended up coming and they created a video game. Over the course of the weekend, someone was actually working on some video game code. He worked with them over the weekend, and by the end of the weekend, they had coded this Pikachu video game, which was really awesome.

With them, the experience seemed to be less about “Look at this weird, crazy stuff” and “Wow, look what I was able to create: I was able to create this Pikachu video game over the weekend and learned code” which was really valuable for them.

Matt: One other thing I’ll mention. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about it, is the Google Science Fair Project.

So if you go to Google and Google Science Fair, last year they did this and they had kids from all over the country compete. You’ve got these web forms that they fill out where they have to have a hypothesis and their procedure in the end, and then winners got brought out to the Google campus and they picked the winners there.

It was really neat because it helps the kids codify their questions and their problems in a real scientific method kind of way. So I think that’s a real positive thing they’re doing and can spread all over the country.

Jeremy: Just one last thing I want to say on the subject of kids and hacking around with science.

I find it really interesting, a lot of time, a lot of stuff that we see is being really cool, this website, this thing on a screen taking this data… Kids are like, “Oh, whatever. Screens.”

Physical things …they’re blown away by it. This printed out piece of paper that has got data from the web is awesome.

So I find paper, hardware, physical things; they seem to respond to really more than we do.

Audience: Actually, mine’s a follow-up on that.

My name is Steve Amos. I’m doing a lot of work right now with kids in that regard. And you’re right: how do we connect that aspect of kids as citizen scientists, so to speak, and hack and I’m wondering, even in this room, there’s some incredible talent, incredible knowledge. Is there within the site that you mention, a way that people can share so that we may reach out say, “Hey, we’re trying to do some work.” It could be in Detroit or it could be in London or it could be in Nairobi, wherever it is, and be able to connect, so that maybe there’s some talent that says “Hey, here’s some ideas that we’ve had that we’d like to help connect with those teachers who have kids in those local areas.”

If just anybody, besides the panel, that would have a thought on that, just please let me know. My hashtag is #grsteam.

Ariel: Awesome.

So actually, if you go to there is actually a link to a Wiki and on that Wiki are all the cities that are planning on doing Science Hack Days that haven’t yet. They list their contact information, and they are all looking for help I would say, from everyone.

It really is like a team effort because it’s not enough to just get one community involved in this. When we’re planning, we’re often trying to get all different types of people from all different types of backgrounds to come. So all these cities; each city is responsible for organising their own.

So if you go on there, there’s I think, oh gosh, maybe twenty five different cities listed right now who are all planning on the Wiki. So reaching out to them would be great.

Matt: Another project that I learned about—actually through another event that Ariel had planned—is Friends of the Future.

If you go to Scientific American, they were organising this thousand scientists in a thousand days, and I think …if you just poke around Google probably you’ll find it.

They were trying to pair up scientists with schools and school districts where you would either have a scientist come and talk about their work or connect through a Skype or Google Hangout connection.

I get the impression that they almost have too many more scientists, because I signed up for it about a year ago and I never got called to interact with anyone. So they might be looking for school …but I think that that’s a real positive programme, not just, even if you can’t physically get someone there, the students can interact and ask questions.

So yeah, a thousand scientists in a thousand days I believe is what it’s called.

Jeremy: I just want to say …the internet’s great and it’s able to connect people geographical distances, which is wonderful. But there’s really nothing quite like people getting together in the same room, in the same place.

One of the nice things about Science Hack Days—or any of these kind of events that get people together in the same room—is they realise, “Oh, I’m not alone.”

The kind of inspiration you get from going to a conference or some other kind of event where you realise, “Ah, my people, I’m not toiling alone.”

And this isn’t just Hack Days, it could be anything. If you’re a web developer working on something, you feel like you’re isolated, but getting together with other web developers in your town is wonderful.

Some friends of mine put together a site called Django People. You could sign up and say, “I do Django programming. I live here. These are some sites I built.” And as a result of that, there ended up being a Django meetup in San Diego, because all these people who didn’t realise they lived so close together, who were all doing Django, were able to get together in real life.

So there really is something for getting people in the same room. One of the nice things about Science Hacks is if you can get this mixture of web developers, teachers, scientists—the more the merrier—in the same physical space. A lot more seems to get done than you get with emails, wikis and stuff like that.

Audience: Okay, there seems to be a clear affinity between the kind of stuff you’re talking about with the Science Hack Days and the whole DIY maker movement.

They’ve had a lot of success in reaching out to children and doing the sort of grass-roots kind of thing in the community. I know that there was Maker Faire in Brighton last year. I went to the World Maker Faire in New York, there’s a lot of energy around that.

Has there been any thought of maybe trying to piggy-back on that? Running your event, running a Science Hack Day event in close conjunction with something like a Makers Event so that you could get a mash-up of those two movements to see if maybe it gets even more energy behind what you’re doing?

Jeremy: They show up anyway, believe me, which is great.

There was a certain amount of hardware hacking at the London one. There was a lot more I think in the Palo Alto Hack Day and I think maybe more again at the second one.

Ariel: Yeah. I mean I’ll just say, running Science Hack Day adjacent to events, yeah it can be great, and I think some cities are considering that. I know that it’s not Maker Faire, but in Iceland, there’s PopTag is going to happen there and they’re going to see if they can run Science Hack Day adjacent to that.

It is something where there’s a lot of affinity. There is a slight difference though, in that Maker Faire is often about showing stuff that you’ve already created, and Science Hack Day is all about what can you make in twenty four hours.

Audience: And I think that may be the kind of differentiation you need between Science Hack Day and Maker. Say, “Here’s the cool stuff that’ll inspire you. Now here’s a chance for you to make something yourself.”

Ariel: Right, or even vice-versa: have a Science Hack Day and have the best hacks present at a Maker Faire.

Those things are being considered. But yeah, I think it’s all fair game. I think as long as you’re not asking people to focus on too many different types of things, as far as a BarCamp and a Hack Day. Many people try and mash those up and that ends up not being super well because you’re asking people too many things.

But yeah, having things adjacent to events definitely helps as far as just getting different communities to attend an event.

Jeremy: And actually I’m thinking about in September in Brighton, there’s a whole bunch of web-related and art-related events going on, so we’ve turned September into this Brighton Digital Festival. I’m definitely looking at like trying to find a weekend there where I could fit in a Science Hack Day; do a Science Hack Day Brighton. And there will be a Maker Faire towards the start of the month, so absolutely sort of glomming these events together can be good. A rising tide raises all boats.

Audience: Hi. I’ve gone to some of these Hackathon events, more in a coding space, and I found that it’s really hard to make something that actually works in that constrained amount of time.

I’m wondering if there’s any kind of concerted effort to pick up someone else’s project and carry it forward and try to finish it. Has that happened in these events?

Jeremy: Somebody did actually just launch a site recently to have an event, I forget …it was something like, “Finish It!” Literally a weekend of hackers where you’re not allowed to start any new hacks. You just have to finish the hacks you started at other ones.

But it’s an absolutely fair point, because people can be very ambitious in what they’re trying to do. And you don’t pull it off in twenty four hours, and that’s something you learn as you go along, as “Oh, if I’d just kept it focused, I probably could’ve finished it.”

But again, I would say things like GitHub can be great if it’s software, where you can just throw it up there and say, “Please, somebody take this, finish it.”

Matt: I can give you some of my own experience.

The wind chime, like I said, we just barely had sound going and I’m like, “God, I’d really like to see visual cues with the sound.”

And so it was about, you know, six, nine months of me just working in my spare time, because I’ve got all this other work that I’ve got to get done. And so this was really hard. I got something together that you can download.

Then at this last Hack Day, I was like, “Oh we’ve got something done, I’m going to be really ambitious. We’re going to take LHC data and I’m going to teach everybody how to analyse it in the space of a few hours and then they’re going to hack something together and I’m going to post this stuff on GitHub beforehand.”

And at ten o’clock at night—I mean Ariel knows—I came and I was talking like, “I’m so depressed that we didn’t do anything. I failed. I failed everybody.”

Then I got this inspiration. I had this three-hour burst of creativity and we got something going. We got something hacked together and you can actually see these things in accumulating data.

But for me, it was actually really important to realise we got something together. I actually shouldn’t take this any further. It was the act of building something, seeing how far we could get, and then that was really as much as we could do, was as important as the previous Hack Day where I got something that I was able to carry forward.

I think sometimes it’s actually good to learn what to let go, that it was a learning experience, that it was on its own. Because I do think—I mean, we talked about this a lot—in twenty four hours there’s a limited amount you can do.

So those are my two experiences at both of those; something that was worth carrying forward and then something that was like, “Okay, we got something; going to put it aside for now and let it be.”

Ariel: So we’ve got just about four minutes left, so we’re going to try and take these last two questions really quickly.

Audience: Hi. Thank you. Beautiful panel.

I love the idea that there are no special people. You can be whatever you want if you like what you must do. As Ariel doesn’t have a background in science but is working at NASA. That’s fantastic!

My question is, how to begin in science? What’s the initial point for people with no science background to create something scientific? Advices? Hack Days?

Ariel: Well we’ve discussed some of the things that we would recommend. Like, if you are on the coding side, GitHub is great and just reading up on science in general.

With me, my relation is really just watching science documentaries on the weekend because I don’t really have a life and that’s what I do. And so, surprisingly, I learn quite a bit from those and it’s great.

But as far as like going to Hack Days and organising one, really, all you have to do is be an organised person. If you’ve got that, then you’ve got everything going for you.

I think it’s really just saying, “hey”,raising your hand and saying, “I’m really excited about this stuff, is anyone else?” And seeing what goes from there.

It’s a long trip to actually doing different things but surprisingly just meeting people actually goes a long way.

Matt: And I think your is a nice portal, actually, into ways that citizen scientists …if you want to say…

Ariel: Yeah, is just a directory of ways to participate in space exploration. So it’s space specific, but it catalogues all these different ways in which anyone with or without a science background can participate.

Jeremy: Just to say that it sounds like a flippant answer to say that watching science documentaries is how you get into science, but actually, I think it’s really important to value the storytellers who can get people excited about science. Historically people like Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, James Burke. Now we’ve got Brian Cox. These people who do make it accessible and make it exciting. More of those kind of people; it’s wonderful.

Audience: Hi. So, as a designer who’s into scientist things …but has always been intimidated about going to any sort of Hackathon or anything like that, Ariel, have you found any way of convincing other designers to go with you? Or Jeremy mentioned there’s always trouble getting designers there?

Ariel: Yeah, it can be intimidating, and I’m really—at least with Science Hack Day—I’m really, really trying to fight that.

With San Francisco we had, I think, thirty three per cent developers, twenty per cent scientists, twenty per cent designers and the rest were a mixed bag of anything form a lawyer to a roboticist. But it is intimidating. And I really hate that. And I really hate the people who make it seem like if you’re not a developer, if you don’t know how to code, then you’re behind; too bad, you need to go back to school.

I think the best thing you can do is talk to …I guess, go to a Hackathon, maybe go with some friends and prove people wrong.

Maybe a lot of times actually it’s the fact that Hackathons would like to have designers show up, but they’re not doing a great job of reaching out to them. So also just talking to organisers and asking if there’s any place for designers. They might actually say, “Yeah, we’re actually looking for them; we don’t know any.”

There’s a really big problem with outreach in that regard. But yeah, I really hate anyone who makes it feel intimidating to join science, to join being a coder. It’s crap, because you can absolutely create anything you want and you don’t need to have specific skills to do so.

So on that note, I will thank you all for coming and getting excited with us.

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