Hack me with science: a look back at Science Hack Day SF

"The natural state of ideas is flow and spillover and connection."

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson)

A fortnight ago, I had the good fortune to travel to the Institute for the Future, a well-appointed workspace at the top of University Ave. in Palo Alto. The occasion: Science Hack Day. Orchestrated by Ariel Waldman, cybernetic interaction designer, spacehacker, and cupcake camper and an illustrious multinational organizing committee, the mission of Science Hack day was to bring together scientists, software geeks, and other creative folk to "get excited and make things with science." And that's precisely what happened.

Over the weekend, about 100 people gathered to learn from each other, tinker, form collaborative teams, and build projects that combined ideas from particle physics, molecular biology and bioinformatics, data science, astronomy and space science, robotics, geography, microscopy, software hacking, and web design. NASA was there, with an exuberance of marketing schwag and an eagerness to make their stores of data more accessible to citizen scientists; Mendeley was there to raise awareness of their open API, which grants access to Mendeley's academic research data and web of scholarly relationships; YDN was there to show YQL, the query language that makes it easy to manipulate and mashup data from all over the web. There were Arduinos, LEDs, double helix legos, duct tape of course, a DNA tie, a $512 Polymerase Chain Reaction machine to enable DNA amplification for biohackers everywhere, plenty of cameras, plenty of refreshments, and a superabundance of smart, friendly people. Here's the complete list of projects built.

At the time, I was reading "Where Good Ideas Come From," Steven Johnson's recent book about how creative spaces happen. The book describes a set of patterns that accompany the emergence of transformative ideas. Johnson devotes a chapter-length essay to each of these patterns: the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation, and platforms. The chapters are knit together with fresh insights into the work of iconic innovators like Johannes Gutenberg, Charles Darwin, and Lee DeForest; and descriptions of the idea-generative circumstances of lesser known game-changers like Willis Carrier (air-conditioning), Guier and Weiffenbach (GPS), and Brent Constantz (green cement manufacture). Johnson is a wonderful storyteller who shares his gusto for the big ideas that extend human knowledge and move us forward into a safer, smarter future.

I have no doubt Johnson would love Science Hack Day: a real-life, real-time, compressed-into-a-weekend microcosm of his innovation patterns.

Montage of photos from Science Hack Day 2010, Palo Alto, California, event.sciencehackday2010-montage

Here's a look at some projects that were demo'ed, seen through the filter of Johnson's idea patterns.

Adjacent possible: Particle Windchime is a sublime demonstration of the "adjacent possible" using particle collisions from the Stanford Linear Accelerator to code the music of the spheres. The team used particle detector data to create a custom musical instrument that riffs on "the fundamental laws of the universe through sound." This project won a hack day prize for best use of data as well as the People's Choice award.

Liquid networks: Hack projects, especially the cross-disciplinary ones that emerged at Science Hack day, would never come alive if ideas didn't have fluidity and plasticity. The people who articulate and recombine ideas don't behave atomically, in isolation. They act more like dense networks, bumping up against each other, firing frequently, forging creative connections, turning half-cooked and disparate ingredients into useful applications. Grassroots Mapping consisted of a balloon aerial photography rig, with iphone, Canon camera, and code, and the powerful idea that local communities should be empowered to map their own lands inexpensively, in order to prove their sovereign claims.

Slow hunch: Jeremy Keith, one of the instigators of the first Science Hack Day, spent the weekend thinking about the space elevators, a beloved piece of not-yet-existing technology. His hack, Spacelift is an interactive table that compares the costs of getting spacecraft payloads into geosynchronous orbit using a space elevator instead of a traditional rocket. He writes, "By far the trickiest info to track down was the mass of fictional spacecraft," he writes, but "Havi Hoffmanng such smart, helpful people around made the whole exercise a joy. It was quite a pleasure to walk over to a group of hackers, ask 'Is anyone here a rocket scientist?' and have at least one person raise their hand." If digging up fictional data for the investigation of hypothetical payloads isn't science in the service of a forwarding-looking slow hunch, i'm not sure what is…

Exaptation: You could say that every clever hack is intrinsically an exaptation - evolving and transforming a feature to scratch a new itch, serve a new purpose, or solve an environmental challenge. Johnson's canonical example is the evolution of feathers, a covering originally designed for warmth (down) that developed asymmetry and exapted for flight. In this category, I particularly liked the Near Earth Asteroid Lamp, a project that used a Teensy microcontroller kit, a gutted IKEA lamp, NASA data from a twitter account called @lowflyingrocks, a python script, and some plastic cups. When a near earth object flies by, the lights flash, and the light source becomes a notification device.

The complete list of winning hacks and prizes can be found on the wiki, along with other accounts and many more photos.

There's also a four-minute video version of Where Good Ideas Come From: