Tags: sciencehackday



Far afield

I spoke at Responsive Field Day here in Portland on Friday. It was an excellent event. All the talks were top notch.

The day flew by, with each talk clocking in at just 20 minutes, in batches of three followed by a quick panel discussion. It was a great format …but I knew it would be. See, Responsive Field Day was basically Responsive Day Out relocated to Portland.

Jason told me last year how inspired he was by the podcast recordings from Responsive Day Out and how much he and Lyza wanted to do a Responsive Day Out in Portland. I said “Go for it!” although I advised changing to the name to something a bit more American (having a “day out” at the seaside feels very British—a “field day” works perfectly as the US equivalent). Well, Jason, Lyza, and everyone at Cloud Four should feel very proud of their Responsive Field Day—it was wonderful.

As the day unfolded on Friday, I found myself being quite moved. It was genuinely touching to see my conference template replicated not only in format, but also in spirit. It was affordable (“Every expense spared!” was my motto), inclusive, diverse, and fast-paced. It was a lovely, lovely feeling to think that I had, in some small way, provided some inspiration for such a great event.

Jessica pointed out that isn’t the first time I’ve set up an event template for others to follow. When I organised the first Science Hack Day in London a few years ago, I never could have predicted how amazingly far Ariel would take the event. Fifty Science Hack Days in multiple countries—fifty! I am in awe of Ariel’s dedication. And every time I see pictures or video from a Science Hack Day in some far-flung location I’ve never been to, and I see the logo festooning the venue …I get such a warm fuzzy glow.

Y’know, when you’re making something—whether it’s an event, a website, a book, or anything else—it’s hard to imagine what kind of lifespan it might have. It’s probably just as well. I think it would be paralysing and overwhelming to even contemplate in advance. But in retrospect …it sure feels nice.


Science Hack Day San Francisco was held in the Github offices last weekend. It was brilliant!

Hacking begins Hacking Science hacker & grumpy cat enthusiast, Keri Bean Launch pad

This was the fifth Science Hack Day in San Francisco and the 40th worldwide. That’s truly incredible. I mean, I literally can’t believe it. When I organised the very first Science Hack Day back in 2010, I had no idea how far it would go. But Ariel has been indefatigable in making it a truly global event. She is amazing. And at this year’s San Francisco event, she outdid herself in putting together a fantastic cross-section of scientists, designers, and developers: paleontology, marine biology, geology, astronomy, particle physics, and many, many more disciplines were represented in the truly diverse attendees.

Saturday breakfast with the Science Hack Day community! The Science Hack Day girls! Stargazing on GitHub's roof Demos begin!

After an inspiring set of lightning talks on the first day, ideas started getting bounced around and the hacking began to take shape. I had a vague idea for—yet another—space-related hack. What clinched it was picking the brains of NASA’s Keri Bean. She’d help me get hold of the dataset I needed for my silly little hack.

So here’s the background…

There are many possibilities for human habitats in space: Stanford tori, O’Neill cylinders, Bernal spheres. Another idea, explored in science fiction, is hollowing out asteroids (Larry Niven’s bubbleworlds). Kim Stanley Robinson explores this idea in depth in his book 2312, where he describes the process of building an asteroid terrarium. The website of the book has a delightful walkthrough of the engineering processes involved. It’s not entirely implausible.

I wanted to make that idea approachable, so I thought about the kinds of people we might want to have living with us on the interior shell of a rotating hollowed-out asteroid. How about the people you follow on Twitter?

The only question that remains then is: which asteroid is the right one for you and your Twitter friends? Keri tracked down the motherlode of asteroid data and I started hacking the simplest of mashups—Twitter meets space rocks.

Here’s the result…



Give it your Twitter username and it will tell you exactly which one of the asteroids in the main belt is right for you (I considered adding an enterprise option that would tell you where you could store your social network in the cloud …the Oort cloud, that is).

Be default, your asteroid will have the population density of Earth, which is quite generously. But if you want a more sparsely-populated habitat—say, the population density of Australia—or a more densely-populated world—with something like the population density of Japan—then you will be assigned a larger or smaller asteroid accordingly.

You’ll also be told by how much you should increase or decrease the rotation of the asteroid to get one gee of centrifugal force on the interior. Figuring out the equations for calculating centrifugal force almost broke me, but luckily I had help from a rocket scientist and a particle physicist …I’m not even kidding. And I should point out that the calculations take some liberties—I’m assuming a spherical body, which is quite a stretch, given the lumpy nature of most asteroids.

At 13:37 on the second day, the demos began. Keri and I were first up.

Jeremy wants to colonize an asteroid Habitasteroids

Give Habitasteroids a whirl for yourself. It’s a silly little thing, but I quite like how it turned out.

Speaking of silly things …at some point in the proceedings, Keri put the call out for asteroid data to her fellow space enthusiasts on Twitter. They responded with asteroid-related puns.

They have nice asteroids though: @brianwolven, @lukedones, @paix120, @LGalache, @motorbikematt, @brx0.

Oh, and while Habitasteroids might be a silly little hack, WRANGLER just might work.

WRANGLER: Capture and De-Spin of Asteroids and Space Debris


I’ve just come back from a multi-hop trip to the States, spanning three cities in just over two weeks.

It started with an all-too-brief trip to San Francisco for Science Hack Day, which—as I’ve already described—was excellent. It was a shame that it was such a flying visit and I didn’t get to see many people. But then again, I’ll be back in December for An Event Apart San Francisco.

It was An Event Apart that took me to my second destination: Austin, Texas. The conference was great, as always. But was really nice was having some time afterwards to explore the town. Being in Austin when it’s not South by Southwest is an enjoyable experience that I can heartily recommend.

Christopher and Ari took me out to Lockhart to experience Smitty’s barbecue—a place with a convoluted family drama and really, really excellent smoked meat. I never really “got” Texas BBQ until now. I always thought I liked the sauced-based variety, but now I understand: if the BBQ is good enough, you don’t need the sauce.

For the rest of my stay, Sam was an excellent host, showing me around her town until it was time for me to take off for New York city.

To start with, I was in Manhattan. I was going to be speaking at Future Of Web Design right downtown on 42nd street, and I showed up a few days early to rendezvous with Jessica and do some touristing.

We perfected the cheapskate’s guide to Manhattan, exploring the New York Public Library, having Tiff show us around the New York Times, and wrangling a tour of the MoMA from Ben Fino-Radin, who’s doing some fascinating work with the digital collection.

I gave my FOWD talk, which went fine once the technical glitches were sorted out (I went through three microphones in five minutes). The conference was in a cinema, which meant my slides were giganormous. That was nice, but the event had an odd kind of vibe. Maybe it was the venue, or maybe it was the two-track format …I really don’t like two-track conferences; I constantly feel like I’m missing out on something.

I skipped out on the second day of the conference to make my way over the bridge to Brooklyn in time for my third trip to Brooklyn Beta.

This year, they tried something quite different. For the first two days, there was a regular Brooklyn Beta: 300 lovely people gathered together at the Invisible Dog, ostensibly to listen to talks but in reality to hang out and chat. It was joyous.

Then on the third and final day, those 300 people decamped to Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to join a further 1000 people. There we heard more talks and had more chats.

Alas, the acoustics in the hangar-like space battled against the speakers. That’s why I made sure to grab a seat near the front for the afternoon talks. I found myself with a front-row seat for a series of startup stories and app tales. Then, without warning, the tech talks were replaced with stand-up comics. The comedians were very, very good (Reggie Watts!) …but I found it hard to pay attention because I realised I was in a living nightmare: somehow I was in the front-row seat of a stand-up comedy show. I spent the entire time thinking “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me, please don’t…” I couldn’t sneak out either, because that would’ve only drawn attention to myself.

But apart from confronting me with my worst fears, Brooklyn Beta was great …I’m just not sure it scales well from 300 to 1300.

And with that, my American sojourn came to an end. I’m glad that the stars aligned in such a way that I was able to hit up four events in my 16 day trip:

Radio Free Earth

Back at the first San Francisco Science Hack Day I wanted to do some kind of mashup involving the speed of light and the distance of stars:

I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner…

At this year’s San Francisco Science Hack Day, I came back to that idea. I wanted some kind of mashup that demonstrated the connection between the time that light has travelled from distant stars, and the events that would have been happening on this planet at that moment. So, for example, a star would be labelled with “the battle of Hastings” or “the sack of Rome” or “Columbus’s voyage to America”. To do that, I’d need two datasets; the distance of stars, and the dates of historical events (leaving aside any Gregorian/Julian fuzziness).

For wont of a better hack, Chloe agreed to help me out. We set to work finding a good dataset of stellar objects. It turned out that a lot of the best datasets from NASA were either about our local solar neighbourhood, or else really distant galaxies and stars that are emitting prehistoric light.

The best dataset we could find was the Near Star Catalogue from Uranometria but the most distant star in that collection was only 70 or 80 light years away. That meant that we could only mash it up with historical events from the twentieth century. We figured we could maybe choose important scientific dates from the past 70 or 80 years, but to be honest, we really weren’t feeling it.

We had reached this impasse when it was time for the Science Hack Day planetarium show. It was terrific: we were treated to a panoramic tour of space, beginning with low Earth orbit and expanding all the way out to the cosmic microwave background radiation. At one point, the presenter outlined the reach of Earth’s radiosphere. That’s the distance that ionosphere-penetrating radio and television signals from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, have reached. “It extends about 70 light years out”, said the presenter.

This was perfect! That was exactly the dataset of stars that we had. It was a time for a pivot. Instead of the lofty goal of mapping historical events to the night sky, what if we tried to do something more trivial and fun? We could demonstrate how far classic television shows have travelled. Has Star Trek reached Altair? Is Sirius receiving I Love Lucy yet?

No, not TV shows …music! Now we were onto something. We would show how far the songs of planet Earth had travelled through space and which stars were currently receiving which hits.

Chloe remembered there being an API from Billboard, who have collected data on chart-topping songs since the 1940s. But that API appears to be gone, and the Echonest API doesn’t have chart dates. So instead, Chloe set to work screen-scraping Wikipedia for number one hits of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s …you get the picture. It was a lot of finding and replacing, but in the end we had a JSON file with every number one for the past 70 years.

Meanwhile, I was putting together the logic. Our list of stars had the distances in parsecs. So I needed to convert the date of a number one hit song into the number of parsecs that song had travelled, and then find the last star that it has passed.

We were tempted—for developer convenience—to just write all the logic in JavaScript, especially as our data was in JSON. But even though it was just a hack, I couldn’t bring myself to write something that relied on JavaScript to render the content. So I wrote some really crappy PHP instead.

By the end of the first day, the functionality was in place: you could enter a date, and find out what was number one on that date, and which star is just now receiving that song.

After the sleepover (more like a wakeover) in the aquarium, we started to style the interface. I say “we” …Chloe wrote the CSS while I made unhelpful remarks.

For the icing on the cake, Chloe used her previous experience with the Rdio API to add playback of short snippets of each song (when it’s available).

Here’s the (more or less) finished hack:

Radio Free Earth.

Basically, it’s a simple mashup of music and space …which is why I spent the whole time thinking “What would Matt do?”

Just keep hitting that button to hear a hit from planet Earth and see which lucky star is currently receiving the signal.*


*I know, I know: the inverse-square law means it’s practically impossible that the signal would be in any state to be received, but hey, it’s a hack.

Science Hack Day San Francisco

When I organised the first ever Science Hack Day in London in 2010, I made sure to write about how I organised the event. That’s because I wanted to encourage other people to organise their own Science Hack Days:

If I can do it, anyone can. And anyone should.

Later that year, Ariel organised a Science Hack Day in Palo Alto at the Institute For The Future. It was magnificent. Since then, Ariel has become a tireless champion and global instigator of Science Hack Day, spreading the idea, encouraging new events all over the world, and where possible, travelling to them. I just got the ball rolling—she has really run with it.

She organised another Science Hack Day in San Francisco for last weekend and I was lucky enough to attend—it coincided nicely with my travel plans to the States for An Event Apart in Austin. Once again, it was absolutely brilliant. There were tons of ingenious hacks, and the attendees were a wonderfully diverse bunch: some developers and designers, but also plenty of scientists and students, many (perhaps most) from out of town.

Hacking Hacking Hacking Lunch outdoors

But best of all was the venue: The California Academy of Sciences. It’s a fantastic museum, and after 5pm—when the public left—we had the place to ourselves. Penguins, crocodiles, a rainforest, an aquarium …it’s got it all. I didn’t get a chance to do all of the activities that were provided—I was too busy hacking or helping out—like stargazing on the roof, or getting a tour of the archives. But I did make it to the private planetarium show, which was wonderful.

Hacking Hacking

The Science Hackers spent the night, unrolling their sleeping bags in all the nooks and crannies of the aquarium and the African hall. It was like being a big kid. Mind you, the fun of sleeping over in such a great venue was somewhat tempered by the fact that trying to sleep in a sleeping bag on just a yoga mat on a hard floor is pretty uncomfortable. I was quite exhausted by day two of the event, but I powered through on the wave of infectious enthusiasm exhibited by all the attendees.

Sleeping over Sleeping over

Then when it came time to demo all the hacks …well, I was blown away. So much cool stuff.

Ariel and her team really outdid themselves. I’m so happy I was able to make it to the event. If you get the chance to attend a Science Hack Day, take it. And if there isn’t one happening near you, why not organise one? Ariel has put together a handy checklist to get you started so you can get excited and make things with science.

I’m still quite amazed that this was the 24th Science Hack Day! When I organised the first one three years ago, I had no idea that it could spread so far, but thanks to Ariel, it has become a truly special phenomenon.

Stargazing Planetarium

Speaking, not hacking

I spent last week in Belfast for the Build conference, so I did.

The fun kicked off with a workshop on responsive enhancement which was a lot of fun. Toby has written a report of the day outlining all of the elements that came together for a successful workshop.

The day of the conference itself was filled with inspiring, uplifting talks full of positive energy …except for mine. My talk—All Our Yesterdays—had an underlying sense of anger, especially when I spoke about the destruction of Geocities. If you heard the talk and you’d like to explore some of the resources I mentioned, here’s a grab-bag of links:

I thought I had delivered the talk reasonably well only to discover that my American friends in the audience misinterpreted my quote from Tim Berners-Lee as “Cool your eyes don’t change.”

Still, it was wonderfully surreal to be introduced by Jesse Thorn.

Build Jeremy Keith

My appearance at Build was an eleventh hour affair. Ethan was originally set to speak but he had to cancel. Andy asked me to step in. At first I didn’t think it would be possible. Last Thursday—the day of the conference—was the day I was supposed to fly to San Francisco for Science Hack Day. Luckily I was able to change my flight.

That’s why I was up at the crack of dawn the day after Build to catch an early-morning flight to Heathrow where I would have to dash from the lowest to the highest numbered terminal to get on my transatlantic hackrocket.

So you can imagine how my heart sank as I sat in the departure lounge of Belfast International Airport listening to the announcement of a delay to the first flight. First it was one hour. Then two.

When I did finally make it to Heathrow, there was no chance of making the flight to San Francisco. I was hoping that perhaps it too had been delayed by the foggy weather conditions but no, it took off right on time. Without me.

As my flight from Belfast was a completely separate booking rather than a connecting flight, I couldn’t get on a later flight unless I paid the full fare. So I simply accepted my fate.

C’est la vie, c’est it is.

It looks like Science Hack Day San Francisco—to the surprise of absolutely no-one—was a superb event. There’s a write-up on the open.NASA blog outlining some of the amazing hacks, including the cute (and responsive) Space Ipsum and the freakishly brilliant synesthesia mask: syneseizure.

Science Hack Day SF science hack day


I never made it to the Build conference in Belfast last year or the year before. I think it clashed with previous commitments every time.

This was going to be the third year in a row that I was going to miss Build. I had already slapped my money down for the excellent Full Frontal conference which is on the very same day as Build but takes place right here in Brighton in the excellent Duke Of York’s cinema.

But fate had other plans for me.

Ethan was going to be speaking at Build but he’s had to pull out for personal reasons …so Andy asked me if I’d like to speak. I may be a poor substitute for Ethan and it’s a shame that I’m going to miss Full Frontal but I jumped at the chance to join the stellar line-up.

As well as speaking at the conference itself on November 10th, I’ll be leading a workshop on responsive design and progressive enhancement on the preceding Tuesday. The conference is sold out but there are places available for the workshop so grab yourself a slot if you fancy spending a day working on a content-first approach to planning and building websites.

If you can’t make it to Belfast, I’ll be giving the same workshop at Beyond Tellerrand in Düsseldorf on Sunday, November 20th and there are still some tickets available.

If you can make it to Belfast, I look forward to seeing you there. I’ll be flying my future friendly flag high, just like I’m doing on the front page of the Build website.

That attire would also be suitable for my post-Build plans. The day after the conference I’ll be travelling to San Francisco for Science Hack Day on the weekend of November 12th. If the last one is anything to go by, it’s going to be an unmissable excellent weekend—I highly recommend that you put your name down if you’re going to be in the neighbourhood.

Looking forward to seeing you in Belfast or Düsseldorf or San Francisco …or wherever.