Science Hack Day! I really didn’t know what to expect going in, but after attending this year in San Francisco I’m pretty hooked.

I hadn’t ever been to any other events like a Science Hack Day. Academic conferences, workshops, job fairs – other gatherings of people with ostensibly common interests, sure. But the hack day was much less like those gatherings than I expected – it was more a free-for-all playground of ideas filled with people who are both willing and able to enable, execute, and enhance those ideas.

In retrospect, it makes sense and seems like it should have been obvious. Science Hack Day draws a broad cross-section of makers, scientists, artists, and engineers collected into an environment without the pressures of a professional conference or job fair, but with a clear goal (unlike something even more relaxed, like a ComicCon), and fosters an atmosphere of constructive (and perhaps even slightly frenzied) creativity.

The hack I worked on was largely in software and data archives, with no particularly physical manifestation. However, the space we worked in was buzzing (literally) with the presence of other hacks-in-the-making – chirps from a virtual rainforest soundscape and rumbles from a sonic table, hot-sugar scents from a table of 3D printed candy, lights from lasers sweeping through a tank of fog and a prototype portable planetarium. Some ideas were developed as concepts alone – how would you cost and schedule the development of an autonomous backpack helicopter for transporting kids to school? Others resulted in working tools I would want to use day-to-day – such as a slick chrome extension for determining the carbon footprint of any trip I plan in Google Maps.

With a tight deadline to go from idea to prototype, it might have been easy to get stuck into any one project and tune out the rest of the room. But it wasn’t. And that’s great. People cycled through the space day in and day out, bringing their ideas with them. It was impossible not to put down my laptop and walk over to see what the tables around me were hacking, and more often than not I’d walk back with something new to try.

I don’t think I can register for 2016 soon enough.

Alex Parker is a planetary astronomer, data visualizer, and artist. He currently works as a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, seeking to understand the origin and evolution of our solar system. Dr. Parker’s artwork and data visualizations have been featured in television programs, film festivals, museums, and planetariums around the globe.