Hackers take on science
For 24 hours, programmers, designers and scientists turn Adler Planetarium into lab
05/16/2012 10:00 PM
In a windowless classroom on the bottom floor of the Adler Planetarium, about a half-dozen people sat huddled around a table. Sprawled across the table in front of them between MacBook Pros were the remains of a dissected lime green Nokia cell phone, several tubs of wiring, computer chips, batteries — and a heart rate monitor.
As Christina Yang, a web developer at the planetarium, and Nathan Krapf, a University of Chicago student, looked up ways to program the chips, biologist Andrew Scarpelli sat across the table with a simpler contraption: a vibrating motor, jerry-rigged from the phone and powered with a watch battery.
Their goal? Create a device called the “Arm Alarm,” a vibrating alarm clock watch that can’t be snoozed — it only shuts off when your pulse increases, showing you’re awake.
“Want to see our vibrating thing?” Yang asked as Stuart Lynn, her colleague at the Adler, walked up. “This is the only thing we’ve done.”
As Scarpelli touched two contacts to the battery and the motor began shaking, Lynn’s face lit up.
“That’s pretty epic!” he said. “That’s pretty good for like, a half hour or so.”
“You ripped open a phone to extract that,” Krapf added.
Welcome to Science Hack Day, a 24-hour event at the Adler devoted to fiddling with all things scientific. Organized in Chicago by Lynn and his Adler colleague, Arfon Smith, the event gathered about 80 people last weekend at the planetarium, where they hunkered down to fiddle, tweak, program and design in spaces all around the museum.
Hack days got their start in the early 2000s as programmers gathered to play with the minutiae of computers, devoting a dedicated block of time to look at something — usually around one specific topic, like computer security.
But in 2010, a group in London decided to broaden the concept, and held the first Science Hack Day. There, the scope moved beyond just computers and into physical space.
Ariel Waldman, a designer by trade, brought the first Science Hack Day to the U.S. soon after, and now she helps coordinate the events all over the world. There have been nine so far, spread from Cincinnati to Nairobi, and there are two more scheduled in Houston and the Netherlands in the next month.
“Science Hack Days are less about a serious solution — if you want to, you can — but a lot of it is about having fun just playing with different science data, and if it goes somewhere great, if not, oh well,” she said. “The other thing is, I think a lot of hack days are very developer-centric, and Science Hack Day really tries to be open to anyone. You don’t need to have any specific skills, you just get to play around with cosmic rays or something weird.”
That variation was on full display this weekend at the Adler. There were the more ambitious and techy like Yang’s Arm Alarm, but there was also a Chicago Public Schools teacher who had written a children’s book about astronomy who needed help illustrating it and creating a website and app. One group brought several remote-controlled cars and set about trying to control them via text commands on a computer, soldering the controller to a computer chip.
Another used a brain-wave sensor from the Adler to create an iPad game that got easier or harder depending on two factors — how hard you concentrated and how relaxed you were. Called “Id vs. Ego,” the player tilts the iPad from side to side, trying to make a falling animated character steer his way down without getting trapped by rapidly moving platforms.
Of course, there was one major perk for the hack day being held at the planetarium — the use of its projection dome and galactic data. One group used a collection of galaxies shaped like letters to create what they called galaxy karaoke, projecting the lyrics to a David Bowie song on the screen in the Adler’s state-of-the-art Grainger Sky Theater.
After a solid day of hacking from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon, prizes were dished out to the best hacks. Best hardware hack went to the Arm Alarm team, the best data hack went to galaxy karaoke, and the remote-control car team got the people’s choice award.
Some of the projects will keep their momentum going. Yang is looking into getting a patent on the Arm Alarm and potentially seeking funding and marketing it via a Kickstarter project. The children’s book team is looking to run a Kickstarter, as well.
In the end, Lynn said the event was a big success. “I think everyone there was pretty impressed in how much they managed to get done over the weekend,” he said. “It was so focused — people came in and started hacking right away, and there was no hack that people didn’t think was amazing. It was a broad success.”