As a “professional” (I’ll explain those quotes in a bit) teacher and researcher, my time is fairly regimented and constrained. I teach between 3 and 4 Physics classes every semester, from intro classes for Biology majors to upper-level classes for our Physics majors. I need to cover a certain amount of material in a certain amount of time and while I have some flexibility in my in-class methods, I need to get from point A to point B so that that students can tackle the next course the following semester. I’m funded to conduct research using data from the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, but with that funding comes the responsibility (stress!) of getting the work done that I proposed in my grant application. I can explore different ideas or approaches, but if those approaches don’t lead to some sort of publishable result, I might be in trouble when my grant comes up for renewal. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to immerse myself in Physics and get paid for it, but there are times where I’m in danger of losing my enthusiasm in the daily grind of course requirements, publish-or-perish pressure, teaching evaluations, and the unending deluge of grading, grading, and more grading.
Fortunately, for the past few years, I’ve been able to take a spa weekend to recharge my batteries.
This spa weekend is not on some beach or mineral-bath resort village. It’s Science Hack Day (SHD). And my involvement in Science Hack Day events over the past few years has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career.
If you’re reading this post, you probably know about SHD, but in case you came here from some random Google search, let me orient you.
Science Hack Day is a 48-hour-all-night event where anyone excited about making weird, silly or serious things with science comes together in the same physical space to see what they can prototype within 24 consecutive hours. Designers, developers, scientists and anyone who is excited about making things with science are welcome to attend – no experience in science or hacking is necessary, just an insatiable curiosity.
I’ve been participating in these events since the first one in the US, organized by Ariel Waldman ( in 2010 in Palo Alto, when I was a research associate at Stanford, working on the BaBar particle physics experiment. Through a roundabout sequence of chance meetings and personal connections, I was invited to this event as one of the “real” (there’s those quotes again!) scientists. I’d had this idea to turn our particle physics data into sound, but didn’t know how to go about it. I expressed my pessimism to my friend and entry point to SHD, David Harris, and while I forget his exact words I do remember the sentiment: “If there’s anywhere you’re going to find a group of people to figure out how to make this happen, it’s here.” One weekend and a deficit of sleep later and we had the first version of the Particle Physics Windchime!
I took away a few things from my SHD experience. First is that it was just *a lot of fun*. I got to talk particle physics with people who were interested in learning about this kind of thing and who just wanted to “play” with all of these higher-level ideas and concepts and it was a blast. The second was that *I* learned so much! That was my first exposure to using the programming language Processing, a programming language designed for artists, and I haven’t looked back. The third, and maybe most important takeaway, is that there were all these people who thought this kind of mashup was interesting! They wanted to learn science and learn more about how our world works, and they didn’t need for there to be some significant point to the exercise….they just wanted to mix up some science and art and computing and see what happens. Bubble bubble, toil and trouble…who cares what comes out of this because just the process itself is exciting!
Since then, I’ve participated in other SHDs in the Bay Area, Chicago, NYC, and even remotely on Skype with science enthusiasts in Nairobi, Kenya, and each one has re-emphasized those three points: they’re a lot of fun, I always learn something new, and there’s a bunch of people who want to play with this stuff as well. And here’s where I explain those quotes. I’m a “professional” scientist in the sense that someone (thanks Siena College!) pays me to teach science and perform scientific research. But there is a large number of people who enjoy interacting with the same scientific ideas and would love to be able to contribute in some way, but they don’t feel like doing it 24-7 on some paid job. I have no doubt that most of the participants are smart enough and talented enough to be paid scientists if they wanted, but it’s not the right lifestyle for everyone. And so for a weekend, these amateur science enthusiasts get to do experiments, and build robots, and create websites, and print 3D versions of the dark matter distributions in our galaxy….for fun! No tests, no grades, no homework….just science-y good times all around. I feel that SHD is a really unique outreach opportunity for scientists who want to explain their work at a deeper level to the general public.
So this past Oct., I took two Siena students to SHD in San Francisco, held at the graciously donated workspaces of Github where I was invited to be a Science Ambassador! We were the “real scientists” (I can’t not use quotes when I write that) who were supposed to seed the space with ideas and scientific inspiration, so I wanted to make sure the students and I had the goods. We brought with us parts to build a cloud chamber, a device that usually uses dry ice to create alcohol vapor in which radioactive decay particles and cosmic rays can be seen by the tracks they leave in the vapor, similar to airplane contrails. We had been working on a design that we found online that replaces the dry ice with Peltier coolers. In fact, we had only been able to get it working at last year’s SHD with significant help from some of the participants. We have the build process down pretty well, so we decided our “hack” this year would be helping other people build their own. And we did! Well, actually my students did. They took a couple of the participants to a local computer parts shop, bought less than $80 worth of bits and pieces, donated some of our Peltiers and by the evening, they were seeing traces of alpha particles from an Americium sample liberated from a home smoke detector. While I get jaded sometimes since I can see these traces whenever I want, SHD is a great reminder that not everyone gets to interact with these nuclear phenomena on a daily basis. And the SHD folks there loved it! Coming over to see the tracks, taking pictures and movies. It was awesome.
I was also able to recruit some help for an outreach project I had to convey the size of the LHC. In the true spirit of everyone-here-has-their-own-useful-skills of Science Hack Day, Nathan Bergey said “Oh that should be easy. I can probably do that in an hour” when told him the idea. About 1 hour later Nathan had this: a site that allows the user to overlay the LHC (or previous or proposed accelerators) on their neighborhood: http://natronics.github.io/science-hack-day-2014/lhc-map/. My colleagues at CERN were quite impressed and it’s already being used for particle physics outreach events. So not only did I get to have fun and teach people about all this cool physics, but the event had now pushed something back to the “real science” community. Something that would have taken me a few months to learn how to do properly, given the constraints on my time and my limited webby knowledge, Nathan had done in the course of a episode of Nashville (don’t judge me! why can’t Juliet and Avery just reconcile!).
This SHD also allowed for a particularly fulfilling moment. Last year, I had worked with a local high school student on our cloud chamber prototyping. She was at this years event, working on a different hack, and we got to chat and catch up and talk about a poster my students had presented at a physics conference about SHD and our collaboration together with amateur science enthusiasts. At one point during the weekend, her father approached me, introduced himself and said that he wanted to thank me for working with his daughter and including her on our poster. He said it had been very rewarding for her and he thought that the whole experience had made a difference. As an educator, there’s really nothing more that you’d ever want to hear, that you had made a positive impact on someone’s life and their approach to science. What more could I ask for.
Schedule permitting, and Ariel’s energy unflagging, I hope to attend more SHDs, ready to get some help on my own projects on which I’m stuck, learn some new tools and skills, and expose others to all this cool science. Science Hack Day is this massive collaboration meeting where everyone is friends and everyone just wants to help everyone else make cool science-y stuff. What could be better!
Matt Bellis is an assistant professor in the Physics Department at Siena College, just outside of Albany, NY. While his primarily research is with the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, he also collaborates with others on direct detection of dark matter and computationally intensive calculations relevant to Cosmology. Matt is passionate about scientific outreach to all ages and excited about ways in which non-professional science enthusiasts can contribute to our understanding of the Universe.