What to expect at the 2013 San Francisco Science Hack Day

Ariel Waldman is a graphic designer by training, but that hasn’t stopped her from serving on a human spaceflight committee, landing a job at NASA and helping as many people as possible participate in citizen space exploration. She’s made it her mission to communicate that science is a tool for everyone, no matter their background.

Photo by Matt Nuzzaco
Photo by Matt Nuzzaco

Waldman’s Science Hack Day will return to San Francisco September 28th and 29th, when anyone is invited to spend the weekend working on zany projects. In past years, people have made a mask that simulated synesthesia and extracted strawberry DNA before creating a DNA-free strawberry daiquiri.

I recently got a chance to ask her about this year’s event and her hopes for what it might accomplish. Unfortunately, it’s already sold out, but you can join the wait list here.

What is Science Hack Day?
We gather scientists and designers and developers and all different types of people from all different types of background to see … what people can prototype rapidly in 48 hours. It’s a lot of fun. It’s really about playing around with things. It’s not necessarily about creating something serious that’s going to change the world, although if you want to do something like that that’s totally fine.

Science Hack Day is something that is just a lot of fun. It opens people up. The connections you make are very unique and the ideas you generate from them are really provoking.

From 2011 Hack Day: A group created a mask to simulate synesthesia, a condition where the senses are mixed up, in an effort to allow the face to feel vibrations associated with sight detected on a webcam.
From 2011 Hack Day: A group created a mask to simulate synesthesia, a condition where the senses are mixed up, in an effort to allow the face to feel vibrations associated with sight detected on a webcam.

Who can participate?
It’s not only really about trying to break down the barrier to entry to doing anything with science, but also to me a lot of hack days are super developer focused. We try to promote that you don’t need to be a programmer in order to hack on stuff. You just have to have the drive or excitement to make things.

We do a lot of hand holding to make sure people are perfectly OK with showing up and having no idea what they’re doing. I would say maybe half of our attendees might know what they want to do before they show up and the other half shows up and figures it out as they go along.

To me, it’s really not about having prior knowledge in science or knowing how to do hardware hacking or anything like that. It’s really about feeling free to really interact with science and play around with ideas around it and not feel like an idiot about it. The ideas that you can bring to the table are often times more clever than what [experts] would bring to the table on their own.

What will people make this year?
Every year, I don’t think I can quite predict what’s going to happen, and that’s part of the joy of it. If it gets predictable, it won’t be fun anymore. A lot of the things are really organic and wide ranging.

This is the first year at the California Academy of Sciences. Everyone can spend the night there after the public leaves. I’m interested to see if any hacker ends up being specifically inspired by the environment we’re in. We’re surrounded by jellyfish and an albino alligator. We’re going to leave it super open for people to make whatever they’re excited about.

California Academy of Sciences' New Green Home
The California Academy of Sciences’ rainforest dome.

Who can start a Science Hack Day?
Science Hack Day is not an organization. It’s an open source set of guidelines for anyone to organize a Science Hack Day in their own city. I think it’s something that other people can feel empowered to create a Science Hack Day in their own city and have their own spin on it.

What does it teach people?
One of the major problems is the perception that … you need to know a lot about science to participate. To me, it’s less about convincing everyone science is the most interesting thing and you should drop everything. My objective is to make everyone feel science is just another fabric or material they can manipulate if they feel like it.

It’s about taking people where they are in life and giving them the power to interact with science and just making it almost stupidly accessible for people to interact with. I’m trying to get them to realize if they ever have an idea for playing with science or it becomes useful in their work, they should feel empowered to interact with it the same as the internet or the web.