SXSW: Ariel Waldman Talks About Black Holes Vomit And Hacking Space

Ariel Walderman

Ariel Waldman thinks that no matter how much you know about space, you can learn a thing or two more. And she’s right.

Waldman has made her mark as an interaction designer and also as a research affiliate at the Institute For The Future, a group with the lofty goal to “turn foresight into the critical new insights that ultimately lead to action.” The noted hacker carries this sentiment over to her presentation at SXSW when she began with “the nebulous and alien-like” image of the Milky Way Galaxy to prove a point. Our galaxy isn’t the perfect spiral we’ve all come to know. In fact, it’s an imperfect mess of unexplored territory.


Image taken by Hubble Telescope

What Waldman hopes to show is how little we know and how much more we have left to discover, and she pushes that thought process further by asking people to change their negative perception of black holes. While black holes are widely known to pull everything, including light, into them, it’s rarely discussed about how much they put back out. Or to put it in Waldman’s own words, “A black hole takes up more than it can chew and vomits the rest back up into the universe.” This vomiting helps create and give foundations for the creation of planets and galaxies. With an approximate 100 million black holes in our own galaxy, a constant cosmic binging and purging is taking place.

Waldman sees black holes as massive hackers of our universe, “smashing stuff up and creating new things that might become bigger ideas and collaborations in the future.” In fact, it was the show When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions on the Discovery Channel where she saw engineers and astronauts as hackers of exploration that first led Waldman to coin the term spacehack. This new vocabulary inspired the development of, a directory of ways to participate in space exploration. One thing leads to another when you have Waldman’s enthusiasm for a subject and that’s how Science Hack Day came in to the world. (This enthusiasm also earned her a place as a committee member on the National Academy of Sciences for a Congressionally-requested study on the future of human spaceflight when she sent what amounts to a fan letter to NASA.) This 48-hour event seeks to not to have an “exploitative, production line” but a fun and possibly world-changing event for hackers that’s more about the journey than the end result.

Fun is often the name of the game with many of the creations cobbled together during Science Hack Day. There are extracted strawberry DNA cocktails that taste as disgusting as they sound, font type where all letters have equal wind drag, and a lamp that lights up every time an asteroid passes by Earth that Waldman calls the Near-Death Lamp. Not all hacking done during this event is silly though, such as the case with the nightmare-inducing Syneseizure mask meant to represent synethsesia.


Space hackers hope to use these concepts and more to help explore the universe. Or at least our own galaxy. One such idea bringing more people to the role of space explorer is Planet Hunters, which the website states, “with your help, we are looking for planets around other stars” by looking at lightcurves from the publicly released data obtained by NASA’s Kepler mission to detect shadows and fluctuations.

Also of note is PolAres.

PolAres is an interdisciplinary programme of the Austrian Space Forum in cooperation with international partners to develop strategies for human-robotic interaction procedures and to emphasise planetary protection, in preparation for a future human-robotic Mars surface expedition.

As part of Polares’s program, scientiests are currently exploring ice caves in the Arctic to help define better methods for discovering possible life on Mars.


Today, Waldman made the announcement that Science Hack Day has received a grant from Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The foundation will choose five ambassadors from around the world to be flown to San Francisco for Science Hack Day.

So, how would you hack space?

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