RIVERSIDE, Calif. - The University of California, Riverside has won two medals - "Best in Show" and "Most Whimsical Hack" - at the eighth annual "Science Hack Day: San Francisco," the world's premier science-themed hackathon.
Hackathons are Silicon Valley-inspired challenges to rapidly prototype hardware and software. "Science Hack Day: San Francisco" took place Oct. 14-15, 2017. Designers, developers, scientists, and anyone excited about making things with science were welcome to attend.
"Anyone excited about making weird, silly, or serious things with science came together in the same physical space to see what they could prototype within 24 consecutive hours," said Flip Tanedo, an assistant professor of physics, who led the UC Riverside team. "The event was innovative in its overlap of outreach, education, technology, collaboration, and science."
Seeking to build a similar program on campus, Tanedo launched UCR's first ever "Physics Hack Day" last year. He raised funds to help some of the participants experience the world-class San Francisco event, with the ultimate goal of expanding Physics Hack Day into a Riverside community event.
The UCR team included undergraduates Peter Bautista, Kevin Bleich, Adam Christiensen, and Syris Norelli; and graduate student Cliff Chen.
At Science Hack Day, Tanedo and Norelli, a Chancellor's Research Fellow working with Tanedo on machine learning in high-energy physics, teamed up with Matt Bellis of Siena College in Albany, N.Y., to develop StarCat, a hack that used image processing algorithms to convert cat pictures into actual constellations in the night sky. They took in astronomical datasets and worked on developing a "cat metric" to efficiently map stars onto a given image. Originally pitched as a simple idea, the team ended up digging into the mathematics of stereographic projections and drew upon techniques inspired by particle physics. The work took home the "Most Whimsical Hack" award, recognizing the fun as well as the underlying science.
A spin-off hack emerged from a late-night discussion between Tanedo and Bellis about quantum field theory, the mathematical language of particle physics. They realized that many of the core ideas in particle physics can be distilled into the rules for drawing Feynman diagrams - graphical descriptions of particle collisions - and that the rules for making these diagrams could be reduced to a tactile "tinker toy" exercise. Teaming up with Bellis' undergraduate students, they built a prototype for 3-D printed Feynman diagram pieces that even children could snap together to form valid physical processes.
"Such projects have a great potential for education and outreach," Tanedo said. "This is really how working physicists think about science - it's not in the equations. It's visual."
The judges awarded the team the coveted "Best in Show" award.
Encouraged, the physicists are now developing their idea for showcasing at the American Physical Society meeting in April 2018.
Tanedo was especially pleased about how the science hackathon connected artists, scientists, engineers, and children of all ages.
"This is what science is actually all about: collaboration, exploration, curiosity, and yes, even whimsy," he said. "In the longer term, I envision this being a powerful way to share UCR's science culture with the surrounding community."
Already, Tanedo has started working with the Riverside STEM Academy and Cellar Door Books near campus to plan a Southern California Science Hack Day in the Inland Empire.
The UCR team brought back more than experience, excitement, and awards following their trip. The Siena College group gave Tanedo's team a gift: a prototype for a do-it-yourself particle detector called a cloud chamber. The table-top experiment uses isopropyl alcohol, electronic cooling, and computer parts to detect cosmic rays and other sources of radiation.
"This was an interesting one to bring back to UCR on the airplane," Tanedo said.
The UCR Science Hack Day group was supported by the Science Hack Day foundation, the NASA FIELDS program, and startup funds from the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.
Flip Tanedo made significant contributions to this article.
The University of California, Riverside is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment is now nearly 23,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.