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Science Hackathon 2015 at GitHub
Tantek, Eddie and I are pointing to the cosmos
It isn’t every day that I get to put myself in a new situation. I’ve learned that sometimes being an adult means monotony. It means holding a steady job and maintaining a routine. Those aren’t the moments that give life meaning, though. I think most people can agree that moments that test you, that change you, expand or rearrange your thinking… those come from trying something new, and that usually includes a new experience or place.
So, when a new friend from GitHub who’d seen that I’d driven all the way from SF to Pasadena just to attend JPL’s open house (it was crammed, I tell you!), he tipped me off to this event: The Science Hackathon 2015.
I was immediately excited. It sounded so fun that both I and my fiancé signed up. Then I got there, and it didn’t take long to get a little…overwhelmed.
There were so many different projects going on, and surely my talents and my personality could contribute to one, right? However, as I went around the room I felt less and less certain of my usefulness. I suppose someone like me, raised an artist and musician without any real science background, would feel like I did. I regarded the countless engineers, programmers, and scientists collaborating. How could I possibly keep up? I began to feel down. I knew that this was my self-consciousness getting the best of me, but it’s hard when you’ve thrown yourself into a new situation. It felt a bit like when a parent throws a child into the water who can’t swim…you sort of thrash about for a bit, then decide whether to sink or swim.
Luckily, I got rescued by two awesome chaps who already had an idea for a Portable Planetarium (instructuble to come later). After getting the general idea, i set to making a cheap, easy-to-make design out of scrap cardboard and duct tape. I saw what the planetarium could do; it could transform a normal cieling into a wondrous sky full of stars, planets, satellites, moons… it could help anyone within range of it access a space ship of their very own to explore the great, beautiful cosmos! I wanted this to be so easy anyone could do it. I spent most of the evening and night making it work, and then finished up in the morning. Then, after all the projects were entered and presented, there was a vote on which ones got awards. (A bit of positive reinforcement, I guess you could say!) Then the strangest thing happened; our team got the “Best in Hardware” award. Cardboard, a fish-eye lens, a pico projector, and the Stellarium software.
What? I got an award? For science? Well… I’ve never gotten anything for science. I’ve never got an award or recognition for anything outside of music and anthropology.
Then it hit me. The great beauty of all of this is that you never know what you have to offer until you give yourself a chance to try. The Science Hackathon was so inspiring; people coming together to create something funny, useful, or amazing. Collaborators without the incentive of money, without the restriction of titles or class, they created together purely for the passion of creating. Their incentive was pure social capital, an ability to try things new with new people, to feel that they spent their time meaningfully and at their own volition. Imagine! People working hard all night to accomplish something…for free!
It wasn’t too long ago that I was listening to a TED talk on NPR that talked about how sales goals are never good incentive, how a paycheck isn’t inspiration to do well or work hard (it’s only inspiration to work hard enough to not lose your job). The real incentive, the push that gets people making amazing things? Meaning. If work is meaningful to that person, they will give their best; they will overcome obstacles, they will tirelessly meet their goals, and -most importantly- they will do it and feel happier afterwards.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to feel useful, to do something meaningful, to connect with smart people, and -yes- to feel just a wee bit smart in a room full of geniuses.