Ariel Waldman: Hacker's Guide to the Galaxy

At the heart of something good there should be a kernel of something undefinable. And if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then in a sense you have missed the point. John Peel

Ariel Waldman announces that she has fallen in love with an image of the Milky Way. It was taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, an instrument that records in the infrared.

The view of the Milky Way she displays is edge-on, and Spitzer is able, in effect, to reach into the center of the our galactic home. Pointing to a picture of the Earth, she says, "Hi, I'm Ariel Waldman, I live about 27,000 light years" from the center of that image.


As recently as 1924, people thought the Milky Way was the only galaxy in existence. Now we know there are billions. At the center of our galaxy is a super-massive black hole. "I'm fascinated by these because they're the hackers of the universe, they take raw material and make derivatives."

NASA employees, engineers and astronauts were, she says, the original hackers. They were enthusiastic, and in the age of Mercury and Gemini, of the right stuff and Apollo, they were young, averaging 25 years of age. "They were amateurs," she adds, and shows a picture of other amateurs in the history of science like Albert Einstein. That combination convinced Walldman that she too could do space. "I was amateur," she realized. Today the average NASA employee is decidedy middle aged with - my parenthetical - aspirations to match.

Segueing into Science Hack Day, an event for which she is probably more well known, she says that its mission is to regain a bit of the old excitement, of sheer possibility. The people who show up at one of those events are amateurs. They don't HAVE to know where their idea or project is going. She describes several hacks - building a wind tunnel to test a series of letters that will make a new typeface; or a lamp that lights up each time an asteroid passes the Earth; or a mask that would simulate synesthesia, aptly named, given the creepy image she display, "syneseizure;" or a cocktail made with DNA. On the latter she issues a warning - "it tastes disgusting."

What if, she continues, one could listen to mapped sounds of high energy particle collisions? And in fact, she points out, one such instrument has been created, "particle wind chimes." There's more: given license to roam freely, to make new and maybe unorthodox connections, the creator of the particle wind chimes may have created something with real diagnostic potential in the hands of physicists. Formerly abstract concepts have been made available to the senses of researchers.

Returning to the theme of space, she goes on to question our assumptions about Mars rovers - why should they be car-like and not tumbleweed-like? By treating science as a creative act, hackers, makers and amateur scientists like Waldman understand that the creative act is an act of courage, and that failure, as Lance Hosey pointed out earlier in the week, is just information.


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