Ariel Waldman

Ariel Waldman is the founder of Spacehack.org, a directory of ways to participate in space exploration, and the global instigator of Science Hack Day, an event that brings together scientists, technologists, designers and people with good ideas to see what they can create in one weekend. Ariel is currently an appointed National Academy of Sciences committee member of a congressionally-requested study on the future of human spaceflight. The Committee on Human Spaceflight has been tasked with a study to review the long-term goals of the U.S. human spaceflight program and make recommendations to enable a sustainable U.S. human spaceflight program. She is also a fellow at Institute For The Future. Recently, Ariel received an honor from the White House for being a Champion of Change in citizen science.

For her work on Science Hack Day, Ariel has been awarded grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. In 2012, she authored a white paper on Democratized Science Instrumentation that was presented to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Previously, Ariel worked at NASA’s CoLab program whose mission was to connect communities inside and outside NASA to collaborate. She has also been a sci-fi movie gadget columnist for Engadget and a digital anthropologist at VML. In 2008, she was named one of the top 50 most influential individuals in Silicon Valley.

Although her home base is in San Francisco, Ariel loves to travel across the globe frequently to speak to a variety of audiences and work on fun projects. She has keynoted DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Symposium and O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, as well as appeared on the SyFy channel as part of their Let’s Imagine Greater campaign.

Published Thoughts

Six fears that keep event organizers up at night

When I first came across hackathons several years ago, the idea sounded awesome to me. A bunch of people get together, brainstorm ideas, and build wacky or useful stuff over a weekend. I never really accepted the fact that they were in large part geared solely towards developers. I had weird ideas. I had things I could contribute to a team. I was up for navigating the murky waters of prototyping a concept in any way I could, be it code or cardboard. I just... wasn't a developer at all. I didn't understand why hackathons didn't bother trying to get all types of people together. Sure, they'd maybe say they were open to anyone and there'd be the occasional code-literate designer or two in the audience, but that was about it. I remember sneaking in to a Yahoo! Hack Day to work with Leah Culver and Cal Henderson on a hack. All I remember doing is looking for images and resizing them. Not a monumental task, but I got a thrill out of being part of making something. In fact, that's why I moved to San Francisco from Kansas City in the first place. I wanted to be surrounded by people obsessed with making things rather than just talking about what other people make.

It is those early experiences that motivated me to take great care when I decided to organize my first hack day in 2010: Science Hack Day. Yes, Science Hack Day's mission is about getting excited and making things with science. But there has always been a semi-secret secondary mission just for me: hacking hackathons. There are a lot of things I don't like about what I'll refer to as "generic" hackathons. Honestly, I can rant for hours. The summary of those rants is essentially: Design your event with the shyest person in mind. Always be looking for ways to lower the intimidation factor. It's about the people, not the prototype. A great event is a diverse event. It's a Hack Day, not a Mechanical Turk Day. Do not offload your fears, uncertainties and doubts into a bucket of rules and restrictions for attendees.

It's that last one that I find event organizers have the most trouble with and it is why I wrote this post. When I was organizing my first Science Hack Day, I remember losing a significant amount of sleep as the event date neared. I had organized everything to a T. The event format was set, my co-organizers were in line, we had all the supplies. And yet, as I lay in bed each night, the fear crept in. I realized that while I had perfectly organized everything, I couldn't control whether anyone would actually want to work with each other. What if they didn't like each other? What if there were people no one wanted to work with? What if they didn't know what to do with themselves? I lost a serious amount of sleep over this. It's at this point that I think organizers pick one of two paths. They either a) drown their freak-out in inventing rules and structures for attendees or b) continue to lose sleep but ultimately take a leap of faith that humans are smart and it'll all work out just fine. I chose "B". The event kicked off and later that night as I fell asleep on a hard office floor above the main space, I thought through all the smiles, joy and unbridled creativity taking place underneath me. Like the grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day. I smiled and said to myself: "this is the best thing I've ever done".

I've now organized five Science Hack Days in San Francisco and helped instigate people to organize the event in cities around the world. The 45th Science Hack Day just took place last month, and just this year I was in China, Colombia, Madagascar and Mexico to help with the Science Hack Days there. If you're interested in organizing a Science Hack Day, I've created a how-to guide. And if you're a commercial organization looking to put together a hackathon, do get in touch with me.

Being an event organizer is always a bit terrifying, but it's how you cope with those fears, uncertainties and doubts that is key to the success of any event. While I've written this from the context of organizing a hackathon, I suspect much of this is applicable to a wide range of organizers. Here's my list of the fears to overcome as an organizer (and the overreactions I frequently see).

The fear of no collaboration

  • The ifs: What if no one works with each other? What if they're too shy to talk to one another? What if everyone just defaults to working on their own?
  • The overreactions: Specifying exactly how many people need to be on a team, what types of people need to be on each team, that attendees can only be on one team, and/or how quickly people need to find a team.
  • The advice: This was the number one fear that kept me up at night when I organized my first hackathon. Put simply: you need to have faith that humans are smart, awesome and are capable of navigating how to collaborate with one another on their own. That said, there are a number of things you can do as an organizer to make it easier for people to find teams:
    1. Have an optional pre-event meetup for attendees to meet each other and the organizers 1-day-to-2-weeks before the event kicks off. This allows people to ask questions, know who the organizers are and meet other attendees ahead of time.
    2. Have a shared online space for attendees to toss out ideas and offer to help one another in the weeks leading up to the event.
    3. Explicitly tell attendees that it's okay if they don't find a team for a while. Encourage them to eavesdrop on conversations.
    4. As an organizer: don't freak out if you don't see anyone building anything for the first several hours. The stress of "nothing is happening yet" is always visible on your face and in turn it can make those around you stressed. I often have to tell organizers that the second day is like Christmas morning: somehow suddenly there's a ton of stuff where there was none before! Of course, if you notice a few people aimlessly drifting or on their own, go talk to them about what they're thinking of doing or who they'd like to work with and then connect them with people you think might be interesting to them.

The fear of no ideas

  • The ifs: What if no one knows what to do? What if they don't know what to make unless I give them a problem to solve? What if they come up with off-topic ideas?
  • The overreactions: Creating a list of specific "challenges" that attendees' hacks need to address. Making the event about a narrow discipline. Only allowing people from a specific industry to attend.
  • The advice: Know that everyone has ideas and everyone is creative whether they admit it or not. There are two things I recommend for all events: 1) make it diverse, and 2) make any structures optional. I often see hackathons that are about a very narrow subject and I personally find them to be lacking in the serendipity that makes these events worthwhile in the first place. For instance, people often ask me to do a "space hack day", which would no doubt be super awesome to geek out with all my fellow space nerds at, but it'd be a monoculture of only people who already identify as space nerds. What I love about Science Hack Day and hackathons in general is getting people to play with things they have no experience with and getting these super unusual collaborations of astrophysicists, fashion designers, web developers, lawyers, writers, Navy officers, etc. Of course, it's possible to make a specific-topic hackathon a success, but go into it knowing that you'll need to do significant outreach to make sure you have diverse attendees (e.g. "I know you're a neuroscientist, but I'd love to have you come work on space stuff for a weekend!"). Also, I'm not opposed to offering challenges altogether – I just think they should be optional suggestions. It breaks my heart to see attendees get super excited about a hackathon and then realize they have to choose from a list of pre-determined challenges to participate. Let your attendees surprise you. Off-topic ideas can and have gone on to make meaningful impacts.

The fear of no incentives

  • The ifs: What if no one is motivated to build things for free? What if they don't take our event seriously?
  • The overreactions: Using money, flat screen TVs and other wildly expensive material goods as prizes.
  • The advice: While some will say big prizes helps legitimize their event, I would argue that it's not worth how it changes the feel of the event. Big prizes can change an event that would otherwise be about collaboration and sharing of ideas to an unwelcoming competition where teams shut themselves away from everyone and are more focused on the prize than the journey. In a way, expensive prizes cheapen the work people do. It turns what should otherwise be an intrinsic drive to build things to an extrinsic drive to build what is going to win over everyone else, regardless of personal interest in it.

The fear of no outcomes

  • The ifs: What if there aren't any brag-worthy outputs from this event? What if they're all one-off projects? What if they don't solve any real problems?
  • The overreactions: Helicopter-parenting the attendees with mentors. Creating specific "challenges" that attendees' hacks need to address.
  • The advice: This is probably the most common fear I encounter in other organizers. It's often external – feeling the pressure from bosses or other organizations to demonstrate how the event made an impact. People mistakenly believe that what makes an impactful hackathon is the hacks instead of the people. It's easy to see why this mistake is made: hackathons regularly brag about what products or start-ups got their start at their event, completely overlooking that what really came out of the event was the people, not the product. You're not going to solve giant issues in a weekend. You're not. What you will be doing is bringing people together to create sparks for future collaborations and ideas that they wouldn't have had or acted on otherwise. You're empowering people to play with things they have zero experience in. You're giving rise to people who are otherwise overlooked for solving problems. You are showing people that they belong. For some people, a hackathon can be a life-changing event. For others, it'll just be a fun thing they did one time. But either way, you are changing the relationship people have with a topic area, and in itself, that is changing peoples' lives for the better.

The fear of no-shows

  • The ifs: What if no one shows up because it's free? What if everyone shows up because it's free? What if I can't estimate how many people will show up?
  • The overreactions: Charge everyone a small amount of money to attend so that there won't be many drop-outs and/or don't overbook the venue in case everyone shows up.
  • The advice: I am a die-hard about organizing free events whenever possible. I am always annoyed when events charge an entrance fee and it's clear that they don't need the money to run the event – they just are using money to manage attendance. Free events are not easy. It does mean that you can't precisely estimate the number of people who will show up (though, the same can be said for many paid events). Every event is different, but if you're organizing an event where anyone can register for free, my best advice is to always double-book. No matter how awesome the venue, how free the food, how convenient the location – always double book. I think why it annoys me so much to see events charge that don't need to is because the organizer is essentially offloading their problems onto the attendees instead of dealing with the issue themselves. I know it's harder to estimate attendees if it's a free event, but that's your job. Don't charge people money unless it is 100% necessary for the operation of the event. While $2 or $5 might not seem like much to you, to others it's a barrier to entry that's entirely unnecessary.

The fear of no skills

  • The ifs: What if non-tech-savvy people show up? What if people feel like they don't have any skills? What if they don't have any experience in the subject matter?
  • The overreactions: Requiring a specific set of skills or experience to attend.
  • The advice: This is where I find organizers showing a lack of creativity. Again, allow attendees to surprise you. It should be your job to think through creative ways almost anyone could contribute. Over the summer, I spoke with an attendee who saw everyone building hardware or coding apps and felt like she had no skills to contribute. I talked with her about how hacks can be anything – they could be a video, or a comic book, or a cardboard prototype, or a Wordpress site that manually aggregates things into a useful resource. She ended up creating a video. As an organizer, spend some time to think about how people from all walks of life can create things that might be outside of your focus. Instead of asking the "what if?", brainstorm on the "what could?". What could a community manager do to help build a scientific app? What could a neuroscientist and an astrophysicist build together? What could someone without a laptop create? What could a team consisting of no developers use to prototype ideas? My hope is that as an organizer, you'll be able to dream up many ideas. Prototyping isn't about specific skills, it's really just about having the drive to realize a concept in whatever way you can – be it drawing, video, cardboard, websites, apps, hardware, software, wetware or performance art.

I’m helping NASA turn science fiction into science

I’m both excited and humbled to be joining the external council for NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program! NIAC nurtures visionary, sci-fi-esque ideas that could radically transform future NASA missions. Essentially, NIAC is one of the coolest of the many cool programs at NASA. I just got back from my first meeting with the NIAC group in DC.

Just recently, NIAC announced funding for 12 projects including a submarine for Saturn’s moon, Titan, a comet hitchhiker, and an asteroid wrangler (pictured above, via Robert Hoyt). The previous round of funding saw projects researching everything from human stasis (suspended animation) for long duration space travel to 3D printing biomaterials on Mars. The whole catalog of awards from 2011 onwards is online.

If that isn’t exciting enough, the NIAC External Council (NEC) is an amazing group of individuals that I am honored to be joining. The council is chaired by Frank Martin who worked on the science operations of Apollo 16 and Apollo 17. The other members include Frank Drake, of the famous Drake Equation who pioneered the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and also created the Arecibo message; Penelope (Penny) Boston, who studies extremophiles and how they can inform us of potential life on MarsDavid Brin, a notable science fiction author and science futurist; John G. Kramer, who is conducting experiments on quantum entanglement and authored two hard science fiction novelsMichael Yarymovych, a former VP at Boeing and Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force; and Larry Young, a professor of astronautics at MIT and has been involved in an extensive amount of biomedical research and engineering.

NIAC was originally formed in 1998 (at that time the “I” stood for “Institute”). The program was then canceled in 2007, but a National Academy of Sciences report in 2009 urged Congress and NASA to reinstate the program:

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was formed in 1998 to provide an independent source of advanced aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its missions. Until August 2007, NIAC provided an independent open forum, a high-level point of entry to NASA for an external community of innovators, and an external capability for analysis and definition of advanced aeronautics and space concepts to complement the advanced concept activities conducted within NASA. Throughout its 9-year existence, NIAC inspired an atmosphere for innovation that stretched the imagination and encouraged creativity. Utilizing an open, Web-based environment to conduct solicitations, perform peer review, administer grant awards, and publicize its activities, this small program succeeded in fostering a community of external innovators to investigate advanced concepts that might have a significant impact on future NASA missions in a 10- to 40-year time frame.

Recommendation 3.1: NASA should reestablish a NIAC-like entity, referred to in this report as NIAC2, to seek out visionary, far-reaching, advanced concepts with the potential of significant benefit to accomplishing NASA’s charter and to begin the process of maturing these advanced concepts for infusion into NASA’s missions.

NIAC, now with the “I” standing for “Innovative”, has been back in the business of being awesome since 2010. You can follow some of the awesomeness surrounding NIAC and their funded projects on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NASAIAC.

Now for how you can help me: so much of NIAC’s success is thanks to the creative and brilliant people that propose ideas to investigate. In the comments on my blog post, I welcome your suggestions on what organizations NIAC could consider reaching out to in order to further the diversity of breakthrough ideas submitted each year. I encourage you to think broadly: biohackerspaces, sci-fi conventions, Disney imagineers, or who knows... pretty much any places that foster (or have the attention of) bright people who have the capability to conduct intensive scientific research and/or prototyping of exciting, “out there” concepts that could move space exploration forward.

The future of humans in space

In 2012, I announced that I was appointed as a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee member of a congressionally-requested study on the future of human spaceflight. Just last week, we released our 286-page report to the public. I highly recommend reading it (you can download it for free at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18801 after logging in). There are a lot of highlights, as the report is large, complex and nuanced. I thought I'd share just a few high-level quotes from the report for now:

The committee was tasked with providing recommendations that "describe a high-level strategic approach to ensuring the sustainable pursuit of national goals enabled by human space exploration, answering enduring questions, and delivering value to the nation" and to consider the evolution of such a program out to 2030 (though our report went on to include considerations out to the 2050s).

"The committee appointed to carry out the task above should contain a breadth of backgrounds spanning not only expertise in human exploration but also areas such as space science, science more broadly, sociology, the science of public polling, political science and history, and economics. In this regard, the membership of the committee that carried out this study looks different than committees that have carried out many previous studies related to human spaceflight by the NRC or other organizations, and thus the Committee on Human Spaceflight provides a fresh independent perspective on the issues involved in this much-studied area." (page xiii)

"The committee asserts that the enduring questions motivating human spaceflight are these: How far from Earth can humans go? and — What can humans discover and achieve when we get there?" (page S-1)

"The nation must now decide whether to embark on human space exploration beyond LEO [low Earth orbit] in a sustained and sustainable fashion." (page S-4)

"Given the expense of any human spaceflight program and the significant risk to the crews involved, in the committee's view the only pathways that fit these criteria are those that ultimately place humans on other worlds." (S-6)

"However, to set course on such an endeavor, the nation will need its investment in the human spaceflight program to grow annually over the coming decades. To continue on the present course—pursuit of an exploration system to go beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) while simultaneously operating the ISS through the middle of the next decade as the major partner, all under a budget profile that fails even to keep pace with inflation—is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best." (Page 1-1)

Rationales for human spaceflight

The committee outlined a set of pragmatic and aspirational rationales for human spaceflight. The pragmatic rationales being economic benefits, national security, national stature and international relations, inspiration of students and citizens, and scientific discovery. The aspirational rationales were human survival, and shared destiny/aspiration to explore.

"As discussed in Chapter 2, the pragmatic rationales have never seemed adequate by themselves, perhaps because the benefits they argue for are not unique to human spaceflight. Those that are—the aspirational rationales related to the human destiny to explore and the survival of the human species—are also the rationales most tied to the enduring questions. Whereas the committee concluded from its review and assessment that no single rationale alone seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight, the aspirational rationales, when supplemented by the practical benefits associated with the pragmatic rationales, do, in the committee’s judgment, argue for a continuation of our nation’s human spaceflight program, provided that the pathways and decision rules recommended in this report are adopted." (Page 1-20)

On human survival:

"Through space exploration, we have discovered the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, realized that Mars effectively “dried up” 3 billion years ago, and monitored the decline of the ozone layer on our own planet. It is often said that it is difficult to know your own country until you visit other nations, and in this same manner, space exploration has provided the ability to better know our own planet as we contrast it with others. By continuing to unearth scientific knowledge of other planets and of our own, we our more aware of Earth's fragile nature." (page 2-26)

"It is not possible to say whether off-Earth settlements could eventually be developed that would outlive human presence on Earth and lengthen the survival of our species. This is a question that can only be settled by pushing the human frontier in space." (page 2-27)

On shared human destiny:

"This rationale can be defined as the conviction that human space exploration is transpersonal in nature and that space is a frontier for humanity’s collective aspiration. In this context, human spaceflight aims to study humanity’s future—to dare how far humans can go and to investigate what they have a chance to become. From space stations and starships to planetary outposts and terraforming, human imagination acts as a forecaster of a potential future to be reached only via continued development of humankind’s capabilities for human spaceflight." (page 2-27)

"Human spaceflight is seen as forging a sense of common destiny. “Shared human destiny” and aspiration is a world-view that humans are all in this—life, the universe, and everything—together, and thus should endeavor to explore new frontiers collectively, even if vicariously through the experiences of others. Notably, this rationale is distinguished from survival as a rationale; in this view, collective exploration as part of an intrinsic human experience is separate and independent from the question of survival." (page 2-28)

U.S. human spaceflight in the context of the world

"“Soft power,” or “getting what you want (in international relations) by use of attraction rather than coercion” is a benefit of NASA's human spaceflight programs." (page 2-15)

"space exploration makes unique contributions to U.S. political and social culture. It plays a role in defining what it means to be “an American,” and reinforces the identity as explorers who take the risk of challenging new frontiers that has long been a part of the national culture and history." (page 2-16)

"It is evident that U.S. near-term goals for human exploration are not aligned with those of our traditional international partners. While most major spacefaring nations and agencies are looking toward the Moon and, specifically, the lunar surface, U.S. plans are focused on redirection of an asteroid into a retrograde lunar orbit, where astronauts would conduct operations with it. It is also evident that given the rapid development of China's capabilities in space, it is in the best interests of the United States to be open to its inclusion in future international partnerships. In particular, current federal law preventing NASA from participating in bilateral activities with the Chinese serves only to hinder U.S. ability to bring China into its sphere of international partnerships and reduces substantially the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars." (page 1-19)

"The prohibition on NASA speaking to Chinese space authorities has left open opportunities for collaboration that are being filled by other spacefaring nations." (page 1-3)

The future timeline of human spaceflight

"Continued operation of the ISS beyond 2020 will have a near-term effect on the pace NASA can sustain in exploration programs beyond LEO [low Earth orbit]." (page 1-3)

"Budget-driven affordability scenarios are based on the assumption that the three representative pathways to Mars are constrained by the HSF [human spaceflight] budget increasing with inflation. The lower bound of the budget uncertainty, or flat budget, was not considered, as this condition cannot sustain any pathway to land humans on Mars." (page 4-56)

"Examination of the schedule- and budget-driven affordability scenarios for each pathway indicates, independent of the ISS [International Space Station] extension, that the pathways using historical mission rates are not affordable, and affordable pathways based on an HSF [human spaceflight] budget increasing [only] with inflation are not sustainable." (page 4-57)

On a scenario of the budget increasing:

"Assuming the ISS is extended to 2028 and the HSF budget is increased up to 5 percent per year (two times the rate of inflation), the earliest a crewed surface mission to Mars is likely to occur will be approximately 2040 to 2050. Again, these dates are likely to be optimistic because delays will inevitably occur as developmental challenges and potential failures delay the specific pathway schedule and modify its design. If the exploration budget grows at 5 percent per year, the benefit of terminating the ISS in 2020 is not that great from an affordability perspective, in that a human landing on Mars may be accelerated by just 2 to 4 years, depending on the pathway and the associated risk." (page 4-59)

On a scenario of the budget only keeping pace with inflation:

"The scenario shown in Figure 1.11 was generated to conduct a technical analysis and affordability assessment of a notional pathway to Mars, with a human spaceflight budget that increases at or about the rate of inflation, while also adhering to Pathway Principle VIa and VId by including targets that provide intermediate accomplishments and minimize the use of systems that do not contribute to achieving the horizon goal. Astronauts would explore new destinations at a steady pace: operation at L2 is achieved in 2024, a rendezvous with an asteroid in its native orbit in 2028, and the lunar sortie in 2033. Continuing, a lunar outpost would be constructed in 2036, and the martian moons would be reached in 2043. Humans would land on Mars at the midpoint of the 21st century. However, this scenario violates Pathway Principle VIf because the flight rate is too low to maintain proficiency (Chapter 4): on average, one crewed mission every 2.1 years, with gaps of up to 5 years with no crewed missions.71 This scenario could be modified to allow higher mission rates (see Chapter 4). However, that would require funding to increase at a rate substantially higher than the rate of inflation for more than a decade, which, in the current fiscal environment, would violate Pathway Principle VIe." (page 1-34)

"Based on the lessons from these and other scenarios presented in Chapter 4, the committee has concluded: As long as flat NASA human spaceflight budgets are continued, NASA will be unable to conduct any human space exploration programs beyond cislunar space. The only pathways that successfully land humans on the surface of Mars require spending to rise above inflation for an extended period." (page 1-35)

The nature in the universe

My last post on the Pastry Box touched on how I never felt much of a strong affinity for space exploration prior to landing a job at NASA. There is one exception that I can point to, though. While living in Kansas City, I’d often spend my evenings and weekends watching documentaries. There really only seemed to be two types that I would become glued to — deep space exploration and deep sea exploration. My favorite area of space exploration has always been the very far away things that are at the edge of our understanding — black holes, dark matter, multiverses, cosmic microwave background, etc. With sea exploration, I have been endlessly fascinated with the multitude of seemingly weird-yet-amazing creatures exposed in the dark depths of the ocean. While most of my work is space-based, I’ve been sure to create side projects like Seahack.org and a creepy awesome sea slime board for fun to satiate the deep sea creature nerd in me.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, over the years, I’ve found myself geeking out more about extraterrestrials, extremophiles and astrobiology. To me, it’s a romantic mashup of sea and space that allows my imagination run wild. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) via radio waves (and hopefully someday soon via optical pulses) is a depressingly small effort relative to other scientific endeavors. To me, it’s one of the most significant. It’s a depressing thought to me, the idea of many civilizations even within just our own galaxy being sprinkled throughout, unable to contact one another due to the expanses of spacetime and the minuscule distance covered by our own radio waves (a pathetic 100-200 light years in a galaxy that is a hundred thousand light years in diameter). Each curious about, but without direct evidence of, each other. I was pondering the other day about what scientific discovery would I be sad about not having been made yet before I die. It’s a good question to meditate on. The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence is hands down number one for me.

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The blue dot shows the extent to which our radio broadcasts have reached, though it’d be difficult to detect them even at that distance. Graphic by Adam Grossman and Nick Risinger.

But there are other forms of extraterrestrials that are equally fascinating to think about. The kinds that may not fit within our current viewpoint on intelligence, but are no less inspiring in their accomplishments. The tiny, perhaps microbial, extraterrestrials that may not have access to a radio tower or a spaceship, but for all we know could be relatively abundant within galaxies, and maybe even exist within our own solar system. This is what astrobiology is — the mashup of biology and space — imagining what forms of life could exist throughout the universe through the lens of how various creatures have survived on Earth. Extremophiles are a particular scientific delicacy for many astrobiologists. Extremophiles are creatures on Earth that can survive in conditions that would kill off most others. Acid, salt, cold, hot, dry, dark — it sounds like a tasting menu, but these are many of the conditions in which researchers will search for forms of life on Earth and study how they might be able to survive on other planets and moons with equally inhospitable environments. For me, this research has two interesting applications: (1) the development of space probes that will know how to search for life in our solar system and (2) the potential seeding of life in our solar system (e.g. terraforming Mars). I’ve often talked about my fascination with seeding life in the universe — the failed Russian attempts to send tardigrades to Mars’ moon Phobos and how certain types of lichen could survive on Mars, giving other forms of life a necessary foothold to grow from. In the search for life realm, the debate is heating up over whether to look for life in the oceans of Europa (Jupiter’s moon) or Enceladus (Saturn’s moon). In an ideal world, we’d send probes to both, but the reality of funding for space exploration means we’ll be lucky if we get even one. This infographic touches on some of the high level considerations for debating probing one versus another. Europa currently has a lot of weight behind it partially because it was the first to receive publicity for having an ocean that could potentially support life, and thus has had a very long head-start over Enceladus, despite us having more information about the makeup of Enceladus’ ocean.

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Infographic of Europa versus Enceladus produced by New Scientist.

These fascinations of mine are likely also a result of being friends with Seth Shostak and Chris McKay. Both are very notable in their field and often appear on many of the documentaries that I have watched over the years. Seth Shostak is an astronomer at the SETI Institute who has worked alongside other equally great people such as Frank Drake (of the famous Drake equation), Jill Tarter (the inspiration for Contact), and Carl Sagan (of original Cosmos fame). Seth is likely also one of the most hilarious astronomers you’ll meet. I recommend watching his presentation about finding ET from an event I put on with Boing Boing. Chris McKay is an astrobiologist at NASA who has produced countless papers and conducted tons of field work in Earth’s extreme environments to better understand how we might find life on Mars. I remember asking Chris how many times he had been to Antarctica and he said that he had lost count after something like 20! I always love to soak up Chris’s take on space exploration. Just recently, he shared with me a great article he wrote on how we’ve already technically contaminated Mars and how we should rethink planetary protection policy for the future of exploration.

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Me visiting the Goldstone Deep Space Network facility a few days ago.

I am so grateful each and every day for having discovered my own excitement for science, which has led me to meet amazing people like Seth and Chris who I can geek out with about the multitude of questions I have. Not all types of science are interesting to everyone — in my experience, people typically have one or a small handful of things that make them turn into a puddle of awe. But once you realize what your one science thing that turns you on is, your mind instantly expands as large as the universe (or multiverse), as if you’ve injected it with some type of neurological dark energy.

Adults Are The Future

As someone who has publicly stumbled into a career in space, I often get asked about my interest in space as a little girl – if I had dreams of being an astronaut growing up, if I begged to go to space camp. These questions often bother me, not for being asked, but in the way they’re asked. In a sense, they’re not even questions. The interviewer is throwing me what they believe to be a softball question, assuming with almost certainty that I’ll have a quaint heart-warming story about how I now have achieved what I always dreamed about as a kid. The reality is that I don’t have any stories like that. Space and science barely registered on my radar growing up – not due to bad schooling or uneducated parents (both were great) – but probably because I had already found a love in art and design. From the time I was an early teenager, I was obsessed with one day becoming an “Executive Creative Director”, and spent the next eight years of my life dedicated to that one goal; working my way up the corporate ladder at an interactive agency and attending art school. It was only through serendipity (i.e. unexpectedly landing a job at NASA) five and a half years ago that I awoke to my obsession with space exploration. Prior to that, I was not a space geek. I did not follow NASA news. I didn’t tweet or blog about anything in a way that would’ve made me easily identified as someone to target with science outreach efforts. And yet, had you asked me if I would love to work at NASA, my answer would have been a resounding “fuck yes, of course!”.

I suspect there are many people reading this who also don’t identify as space geeks and yet would exclaim the same answer.

There are very few endeavors focused on involving adults in science. The vast majority focus on getting kids into science, as they absolutely should. But, these endeavors view converting children into a career in science as the ultimate horizon goal. There’s a complete void when it comes to adults. Once you’ve chosen a career outside of science, you are forever lost to the science world. The focus on you ends. You’re considered an unfortunate statistic. Somehow overnight you went from being “the future” to being a “loss” on the science scoreboard. We abandon those supposed “futures” the moment they choose a career outside of science and continue to overlook them for the decades to come.

If an adult asks what they can do to get involved in science, the answer is almost always a simple “go back to school”. I actually got a chance to ask this to the late Sally Ride in 2009 and sadly received the same answer. I find this to be an incredibly cheap answer. It implies that you as you exist right now, with your unique experience, skill-set and way of looking at the world, are useless to the world of science. It implies that if you chose a career outside of science, then you chose the lesser career. This implication is amplified with women – examples of women choosing science over, say, fashion design, are touted as a huge success. These “other” careers are often mildly demonized as being shallow or a submission to gender-conditioning in society. While the public message is celebrating people choosing science as a career, the unintentional underbelly of the message is that those who didn’t chose the lesser path.

Last week, I attended an event by NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, a small program that funds some very cool science-fiction-esque prototyping, keynoted by Mythbusters’ Jamie Hyneman. Jamie seemed surprisingly nervous to talk to a group of rocket scientists, but he urged the importance of non-linear thinking and experimenting. Most people I’ve encountered in the science community applaud Mythbusters and look up to them, but they still tend to (wrongly) relegate their work and message as being intended for children, rather than for people of all ages.  

Of the programs that explicitly target adults, most focus solely on improving science literacy, which is a worthwhile and important pursuit. But engaging adults in simply being informed about science, so that they may become better-educated voters, is lackluster in my eyes. In 1998, a National Science Foundation report made a remark that begins to hit the mark a little closer:

“It is important to understand how individuals assess their own knowledge of these subjects. For many purposes ... it is the individual’s self-assessment of his or her knowledge that will either encourage or discourage a given behavior.”

This starts to tear down the wall of judging people based on how “well-informed” or “attentive” they are (terms that permeate these statistics reports) to science, and instead places more significance on an individual’s assessment of themselves. To go further, I’d argue that “knowledge” isn’t as telltale of a measurement as “experience”.

We engage kids in hands-on learning activities to increase their confidence and strengthen their knowledge via direct experience, rather than observation. Direct experience has a profound effect on how people assess themselves and their willingness to learn more. And yet, so many programs that “engage” adults in science rely on passive media consumption: reading, art gallery exhibits, documentaries. Many institutions seem to fully support the idea of children playing with science, while at the same time not grasping the importance of continuing “play” with adults. In a sense, kids are encouraged to be independent explorers/learners while adults are not. Somewhere along the line, the removable training wheels of our youth became bolted on for our adulthood.

All of this frustration folds in to my work on Science Hack Day. 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. People organically form multidisciplinary teams over the course of a weekend: particle physicists team up with designers, marketers join forces with open source rocket scientists, writers collaborate with molecular biologists, and developers partner with school kids. Science Hack Day is inherently about mashing up ideas, mediums, industries and people to create sparks for future ideas, collaborations and inspirations to launch from.

It is not my goal to convert people to a career in science, nor is it my aim to increase scientific literacy. Both of these can be a result for some people, but that’s not my focus. My focus is to change people’s relationship with science, from one of observation to one of active contribution and participation. Having adults play with science, despite lack of understanding or knowledge, is the most empowering form of science engagement. Being able to walk away from a weekend and tell others that you experimented with biotech, explored neurological phenomena, sonified subatomic particles, or designed a website about satellites, creates a mental locket – a keepsake that affirms your ability and your right to talk about, play with, and question science. You may not still know about the inner workings of biology, neuroscience, particles or spacecrafts, but you’ve tinkered with it. You now know that if you’d ever like to tinker with science again, that there’s no barrier to entry. You didn’t need permission, you didn’t need a degree, you didn’t need l33t hacking skills, you didn’t even need a MOOC. Science shifts from being Fort Knox to being just another available material you can manipulate.

The science industry suffers in immeasurable ways from not recognizing the potential of actively working with people outside of the science community. By having a fresh set of eyes from those who solve different types of problems across a variety of industries, new concepts often emerge and go on to influence scientific processes, communication and discoveries in unexpected ways. Ivory towers can absolutely get by in continuing to stay tunnel-focused, but the forfeiture of countless clever approaches made by maintaining such a narrow path is reckless.

It’s not very different from visiting a foreign country, if only for a short time, as opposed to only having observed it in books and on television. In this case, the remote island is science, and like many places, you don’t need to speak the language in order to get by and explore. By empowering adults to play, you’re building an army of the future. The loudest advocates are not ones who are simply literate – the loudest are the ones who can proclaim that they’ve been to this island of science, they’ve talked to the locals, they’ve questioned the rituals and they’re dreaming of when they can one day visit again.