Ariel Waldman: ‘Yes, the universe can teach us a few things’

6 Aug 201527 Shares

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Ariel Waldman, founder of Spacehack.org and Science Hack Day. Image via Matt Biddulph (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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There is so much that people could gain if the space exploration community teamed up designers and coders to make space exploration more accessible, mused Ariel Waldman of Spacehack.org in Dublin recently.

There has probably never been a better time to be fascinated by space. Whether it is stunning views from the dark side of the moon or astronauts like Chris Hadfield serenading us with renditions of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, every day is a new discovery.

Even though we haven’t put a man on the moon for decades, we still have a robot on Mars, a spaceship stalking comets and evidence of Earth-like planets seems to be cropping up daily.

Ariel Waldman, founder of Spacehack.org, grins like a Cheshire cat at my bumbling description of this time we are in. She was in Dublin recently to speak at Inspirefest 2015.

‘Space and science are just another fabric to play with or manipulate and for which there doesn’t have to be this huge barrier to entry’
– ARIEL WALDMAN

“For me, I always liked things that are about just the edges of our knowledge and exploring the unknown. I think space offers this great, extremely large universe or multiverse, so for me that’s great, I’m a space geek.

“Even space life is interesting but, on a personal level, understanding the nature of the universe and what’s out there, searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence and things like that are what get me excited.”

Waldman is the founder of Spacehack.org, a directory of ways people – ordinary people as well as techies and academics – can engage in space exploration. She is also the global director 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.

Waldman is a member of the US Academy of Sciences committee that is focused on a study on the future of human spaceflight and in 2013 she received an honour from the White House for being a Champion of Change in citizen science.

She also sits on the council for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), a programme that nurtures radical, sci-fi-esque ideas that could transform future space missions.

She used to work at NASA’s CoLab programme to connect communities inside NASA to collaborate.

Because physics

I ask Waldman what, in her lifetime, would she love to see space exploration produce.

“Nothing is guaranteed. There are two different things I would love to see. Humans landing on Mars would be one of them, that’s something that I used to assume would happen in my lifetime, but now I know is not guaranteed. I mean, it could happen, but probably not by the time I am at retirement age or heading for the grave.

“The second thing I would love to see is the discovery of extraterrestrial life, whether its intelligent life in the universe or just on a microbial level, that would be a huge thing for me. It’s not guaranteed to happen, but it would change everything that we know here on Earth.

“If we were to discover extraterrestrial intelligence or another civilisation it would change how we view medicine and science and would be a pivotal moment in humanity’s history.”

Waldman tempers this, however, with the hard reality that, not only is space really big, even if another civilisation was discovered communicating with it or visiting it would be next to impossible.

“Even if you had the advanced technology and could travel at the speed of light, you still might not be able to reach very far when it comes to the universe.

“I think people underestimate how much physics is in the way of alien civilisations visiting us if they existed or vice versa.”

Connecting science with design

San Francisco-based Waldman describes her opportunity to work with NASA and create the CoLab programme as serendipity. “They were looking for someone with experience in design, marketing and connected to the San Francisco start-up scene to make it happen. They were looking for a complete outsider.

“The idea was to connect people who are focused on NASA with other people for whom NASA isn’t on their radar.

“It meant I got to work with NASA to open up their data and collaborate with people from different disciplines. It was a unique position and I got to enable more of a crossover between the tech scene in San Francisco and NASA.”

CoLab was short-lived, but it gave Waldman the impetus to create SpaceHack.org. “I did this because I learned that there were different ways that people could contribute to space exploration, even if they weren’t scientists.

“There were all of these opportunities embedded within government websites that were hard to understand and I knew I had to help people have the same experiences that I had. You can contribute to space exploration without having to drop everything you are doing and get a PhD.”

This inspires me to point to the example of Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood actress who, bored with the idea of selling war bonds in World War II, used her interest in science to invent a frequency-hopping spread spectrum to help the war effort. This eventually became the forerunner for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and CDMA wireless systems.

“People from different disciplines can have something to contribute to science and much of my work is focused on getting people without formal scientific backgrounds to collaborate with scientists. Scientists can be skeptical about this until they see it happen. Having scientists being socially connected to designers, for example, lead to many ‘aha’ moments that often surprise them.”

Waldman also believes that there is a role for the software developer community to play. “I actually do a lot of work with the open source community, especially in terms of Science Hack Day, and there’s a lot of open scientific data out there, but no one’s doing anything interesting with it.

“It could take coders and designers and different types of people to figure out how to make interesting interfaces or come up with playful ways of exposing this data.

“Just because things are more open, doesn’t mean the work is being done.”

Waldman says that all her efforts with Spacehack.org and Science Hack Day is bridging the chasm between the space community and the ordinary public who may have something to contribute.

“To me, Science Hack is successful so long as individuals find something cool and which excites them,” Waldman concludes.

“Whether it is life-changing for them that is not my goal. My goal is really to get people to realise that space and science are just another fabric to play with or manipulate and for which there doesn’t have to be this huge barrier to entry.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Ariel Waldman image at top via Matt Biddulph (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com