“Overwhelming.” “Unexpected.” “Joyful.” “Serendipitous.” “Inspiring.” “Fun.” These are typical words used to describe the experience of participating in a Science Hack Day, a 48-hour all-night event where anyone excited about making weird, silly, or serious things with science gathers to see what they can prototype within 24 consecutive hours. Designers, developers, scientists, and all science enthusiasts are welcome to attend — no experience in science or hacking is necessary, just an insatiable curiosity.
In November, San Francisco hosted 150 science hackers for a weekend of making — ten of whom were interested in creating a similar event in their home cities of Berlin, Cape Town, Chicago, Dublin, Mexico City, Nairobi, Reykjavik, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, and Vancouver. Some arrived with ideas of what they might want to do, while others showed up with nothing more than enthusiasm. People organically formed multidisciplinary teams over the course of the weekend: particle physicists teamed up with designers, marketers joined forces with open source rocket scientists, writers collaborated with molecular biologists, and developers partnered with schoolkids.
The result of this weekend of intense hacking and collaboration was 26 remarkable hacks, spanning across all types of science, including oceanography, neuroscience, space exploration, seismology, biotech, and particle physics, among others.
Science Hack Day is about mashing up ideas, mediums, industries, and people to create sparks for future ideas and collaborations. Here are some of the hacks created at the most recent and previous Science Hack Days.
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could feel sight? That’s what one team of science hackers sought to explore, creating a mask that simulates synesthesia, a condition where senses get mixed up (e.g. associating colors with numbers or seeing ripples in your vision resulting from loud sounds). The team wanted to simulate a synesthetic sensation by mashing up sight (via a webcam) with touch (via vibrating speakers).
Syneseizure is a fairly creepy-looking hack. They attached 12 vibrating speakers inside a head mask sewed from a pattern they found online and wired them to an Arduino and a webcam. The result is an all-encompassing head mask that vibrates on different areas of your face, corresponding with different visual information picked up by the webcam, thus creating the feeling that areas of a room are lighter or darker as you navigate around. Learn more about the making of Syneseizure at syneseizure.wordpress.com.
Instead of seeing visualizations of subatomic particle collisions, what if you could hear them? Matt Bellis, a Stanford particle physicist, teamed up with a focused group of hackers and experimented with mapping particle collision data with a variety of sounds. The result is an amusingly awkward symphony of science that you can control via a web interface. While on the surface it is a “cute” hack, Bellis thinks it could be considered as a sort of augmented diagnostic tool for accelerator laboratories to use for detecting problems in the accelerator.
Subsequent hacks at Science Hack Days have also gone on to inspire particle physics in unexpected ways. One team created a beard-detecting hack using a USB microscope paired with a computer vision library that measured small lines, and as a result of being exposed to this fun hack, Bellis wrote a proposal for how to detect cosmic rays in a cloud chamber using similar techniques. Download the Particle Windchime to run on your computer at mattbellis.com/windchime.
What does DNA taste like? Aside from the fact that DNA is very small, the materials needed to extract it often aren’t edible, or if they are, they’re not as delightful as a cocktail.
Despite the copious amount of food present at Science Hack Day, a band of biohackers were hungry for more. They sought to craft a recipe for extracting strawberry DNA that didn’t require indigestible ingredients and could also double as a cocktail.
Using strawberry puree and some very strong alcohol, the biohackers were able to extract the strawberry DNA into polymer clumps you could see with the naked eye. The final cocktail was definitely something that could knock you off your feet, but it has paved the way for more delightful science-based delicacies. The recipe is available at makezine.com/go/dnaquiri.
What if our phones could broadcast “earthquake!” faster than we could tweet it? We are all cyborgs, after all, carrying devices that extend us physically and mentally. Those devices are more than just phones, though, they’re also sensors — ubiquitous, cheap, widely-distributed sensors that many scientists are eager to tap into.
The Quake Canary hack put this concept to a test: can our smartphones detect earthquakes accurately? It seems so. By proto-typing a proof-of-concept, the team demoed the ability for networked phones to detect earthquakes and instantly send data to the U.S. Geological Survey — potentially giving areas in danger early warning signals quicker.
The hack has now blossomed into a project that’s teaming up with machine learning and time-domain informatics experts from the University of California, Berkeley. Prototypes with improved algorithms have been created by the team in the last few months, and they are preparing for expanded deployment of the project along California’s Hayward Fault.
Can you check up on space travel while you’re relaxing at home or busy at work? Astronauts are continuously orbiting the Earth — sometimes you can see a fair glint of their spacecraft, the International Space Station (ISS), overhead on a clear night when they happen to fly past your location. What if you could always see where they are without going outside or opening your laptop?
Inspired by previous Science Hack Day ideas like the Near Earth Asteroid Lamp, a lamp that would light up each time an asteroid passed by the Earth, the ISS Globe continuously shows you where the ISS is overhead. The team of science hackers used a translucent globe, two hobby servos, a MakerBot for 3D printing a few gears, a Teensy microcontroller, and a laser that was mounted inside the globe. Firmware controls interaction between a laptop and the servos, and a Python client controls interaction between the microcontroller and the servos.
The end product is a globe with a glowing red dot that shows you where the ISS currently is throughout the day. Learn more about the making of the ISS Globe and find the source code and API at makezine.com/go/issglobe.
Typefaces often strive for visual consistency in their design, but what if they took their visual cues from the physical world?
The Isodrag Typeface is a font designed by aerodynamics. This hack used a makeshift wind tunnel and recorded the aerodynamic drag of each uppercase sans-serif letter. The weight of each letter was altered until all letters were recorded as having equal drag. For example, the letter “I” has low aerodynamic drag, so it was modified to be very thick. The product is a typeface that is aerodynamically consistent. You can see the full typeface set at twitpic.com/7dpbrd.
These hacks are very much in the spirit of Science Hack Day’s mission to get excited and make things with science. By creating new ways of interacting with, contributing to, and deconstructing science, the amazing things that emerge often influence and impact the scientific field in unexpected yet delightful ways.
Science Hack Days are being planned in dozens of cities all around the world, and if there’s not already one coming to your community, you’re encouraged to create one! Instructions for how to create a Science Hack Day in your city and a list of upcoming events are at sciencehackday.com.