Science Hack Day Comes to Cambridge

Science Hack Day Comes to Cambridge

Using science to build cool stuff

  • Posted on: 23 October 2013
  • By: stannenb

Would you let people you just met put electrodes on your scalp and put current through your brain using a device you'd built over the last 24 hours? If you said no, then you didn't embrace the spirit of experimentalism at play at the Boston-area's first Science Hack Day, which took place last weekend at Harvard's Center for Systems Biology. The 24 hour opportunity to work on science projects - participants were encouraged to bring sleeping bags - drew 40 scientists, citizen scientists, and interested observers to Cambridge to share their passion for exploration.

The day started with a series of brief presentations that placed Do It Yourself (DIY) science in context and sought to inspire participants. MIT PhD student and Emmy winning special effects technologist Dan Novy gave a brief version of his class, "Science Fiction to Science Fabrication: Pulp to Prototype", noting the fictional basis of many modern devices and pointing out that Frankenstein was DIY biology. Jose Gomez Marquez of the MIT Little Devices Lab spoke about the long history of DIY medical innovation, pointing to then invention balloon angioplasty, the process of using inflatable balloons to clear blocked heart vessels, on a kitchen table. And Michael Baym, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Systems Biology Department of Harvard who served as unofficial host, offered a survey of the use of consumer devices in current research work at Harvard.

Hackathons organize by participants suggesting projects on which they wish to work by offering quick "pitches". Then, through an organic process of discussions and brainstorming, projects change and coalesce, until teams form to work on activities of interest.

Science Hack Day started in London in June 2010, and came to San Francisco later that year. Since then, 25 Science Hack Days have happened around the world. This weekend's event was the first in the Boston are. Organizer Jessica Polka attended the first San Francisco Hack Day. When she moved to Boston to pursue postdoctoral work at Harvard, she was surprised there was no event here and set out, with the help of Willow Brugh, a Research Affiliate at MIT's Center for Civic Media and a veteran hackathon facilitator, to bring one here.

Science Hack Day's motto is simple: Get excited and make things with science. It does so by bringing together "designers, developers, scientists, and other geeks in the same physical space for a brief but intense period of collaboration, hacking and building cool stuff." And the projects demonstrated 24 hours after teams formed were undoubted cool.

  • Libraries have stacks of old records, too fragile to be played and recorded via phonograph. A project that started as a "laser phonograph" turned into an "office scanner phonograph" after Michael Baym had shown the use of scanners to record cell growth, replacing expensive lab optics with off the shelf technology
  • Do scientists have the attention span of teenagers? That was the question another group tried to answer by the analysis of the frequency of keywords over time in influential science journals
  • In order to address Wikipedia gender bias. a tool to identify incomplete Wikipedia entries for women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,
  • A transcranial stimulator which, in the demo, created brief strobe-like visual hallucinations in a volunteer whose enthusiasm for neurohacking was infectious
  • a biology to English translator
  • the beginnings of an application to track ones microbiome
  • a file previewer for a the Open Science Framework project
  • Music of Life, an attempt to use music a way to convey the essence of visualized data.

Wikipedia Women in STEM and the Office Copier Phonograph were both awarded "best hack" grand prizes by a panel of judges. Receiving honorable mentions were "Scientific Fads and Impact Factor" and Open Source Collaboration File Previews.

The success of a hackathon is not necessarily in the projects it creates. Rather, it's in the creation of community and the longer term viability of the ideas generated. With the transcranial stimulation team vowing to keep meeting about neurohacking, the scanner phonograph project already working on version two, and calls for the publication of the the data about scientific trends, besides being ridiculously cool, Cambridge's first Science Hackathon was a rousing success.

Read CambridgeHappenings, a daily Cambridge news summary, curated from fresh, local sources.

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Great story about a really interesting event! You certainly captured my interest with your opening sentence.

- Siobhan