Hackathon Reflection

As a classics nerd, my favorite account of discovery would have to be the birth of the word Eureka. For those who are unfamiliar with its origin, the word is derived from the Ancient Greek word εὕρηκα heúrēka, which translates “I have found it.” The modern usage comes from a tale, of which, true or untrue, I am particularly fond. Archimedes, a famed Greek mathematician, needed a way to prove that a crown was composed of a certain amount of gold in order to please a tyrant. Stymied, the scholar decided to take a bath to unwind. Upon doing so, Archimedes noticed that he had displaced the water level of the bath by stepping in. Suddenly, he understood that the volume of the water displaced, an easily measurable quantity, would have to equal the volume of the submerged object. The thrill of discovery forced him to exclaim “Eureka!” and the word has been immortalized in the international lexicon ever since.

Before attending the Hackathon, I was convinced that all discoveries needed to be “Eureka!” worthy. Slowly and surely, after a prolonged marathon of consistent failure and revision, my thoughts on the matter changed.

At first, it was difficult to justify to myself why exactly I was staying at school for 44 hours over a long weekend. My current schedule already has me spending around 52.5 (yes, I did the math) hours at school during a typical five day week.  Moreover, although I am interested in design and engineering, I really had no experience whatsoever in creating the type of “Hacks” that were generated during these types of events. Naturally, several of my concerned friends and peers questioned why I was set on attending. Prior to the event, I could not honestly answer that question.  It was just an opportunity that appealed to me. Furthermore, I knew that I wanted to have a career in a STEM field, albeit probably not engineering, and that the skills I would learn at the Hackathon  would definitely benefit me in the future. Also, I like to challenge myself, even if these challenge result  cursing at an Arduino board at 4 in the morning. Now I can confidently answer why I wanted to attend, even if I was unaware of this simple reason at the time. I wanted to attend so that I could fail as many times as it is required to learn something.   

The hack that my group attempted (the word attempted is extremely purposeful) was a lie detector. Despite being mechanically simple, this proposal was unexpectedly complex. Our lie detector used Galvanic Skin Response, or the body’s tendency to emit sweat when emotionally distressed, as an indicator of lying. A current was sent out through the body and, when sweat levels increased, the conductivity increased accordingly. We then used Arduino software to chart the conductivity changes and predict the lies.

I would say choosing to take on this particular technology was a hubristic choice evocative of those made by the ill-fated heroes of Greek mythology. See, even those familiar with the most scientifically dubious of crime shows are aware of the fact that lie detectors or polygraph tests, even those professionally made, are so unreliable that they are not admissible in court. In spite of being fully aware of this, my group decided to make one anyway. Cockiness may have been one contributor to this decision, but curiosity was the other.

Although the simple machine had a significant margin of error and will need to be adjusted further, the lie detector as a process of creation was enormously successful. The circuit was tricky enough to wire and the code used to create the sweat response graphs was problematic enough to write that our group failed countless times. We spent more time considering different software, scouring the Internet, and taking everything apart just to put it back together without a single change than we spent sleeping. For a team of novices, there could not have been a more beneficial lesson in engineering, perseverance, and, surprisingly, the intersection between anatomy and psychology. Thus, in spite of losing my will to live due to sleep deprivation and creating a lie detector that is a better coaster than truth seeker, I can honestly say that I would not have preferred to spend my weekend doing anything else.

–Colette Juran, Science Editor

Posted by on January 25, 2016. Filed under School News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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