Learning about Biohacking


Mar 2016

Thanks to Marc Dusseiller, I learnt about interesting intersections between open-source hardware, software and biology at a meetup last Friday.

The meetup was about different topics, such as building your own biology lab equipment, open-source disease preventions, up to gardening, hunting and cooking. To understand why these topics are important and interesting, let’s examine the roots of “biohacking”.

Surprisingly, the word “biology” is not very old. It was only introduced in the early 19th century. The “study of life” is much older though. Back in 4th century BC, Aristotle started listing attributes of animals. While that sounds simple, these studies resulted in interesting discourses on abstractions and categories.

Today, students of biology study chemistry, physics, o bit of algorithms and genetics (I would think). Normally, this requires expensive equipment (I would think). There are different approaches though, as Marc explained.

With internet and open-source technologies, students can build simple devices themselves to study biology. Googling these ideas resulted into a quote by Mitchel Resnick: People don’t get ideas; they make them. In this context, Marc mentioned an important paper: “Beyond Black Boxes: Bringing Transparency and Aesthetics Back to Scientific Investigation”

The observations of Resnick apply to science labs outside of biology:

Over time, the scientific laboratory may, sadly, have become a less beautiful setting in which to work, .... The modern-day student of science is less likely to experience a sense of comfort and delight in their surroundings; and, as Csikszentmihalyi (1996) has observed, the creative enterprise (whether scientific or artistic) is often keenly influenced by just such environmental factors.

And the paper continues:

Both the power and the problem with modern scientific instrumentation are reflected in the term “black box” that is commonly used to describe the equipment. Today’s blackbox instruments are highly effective ... But, at the same time, these black boxes ... are bland in appearance (making it difficult for users to feel a sense of personal connection with scientific activity).

To me, it is an advantage of open-source hardware that is much more transparent. The playful aspects of Arduino remind more on working with Lego than with hard to understand electronics at times. It was nice to see the roots of these theories based on Piaget and Papert, resulting into the concept of “lifelong kindergarden”. The instruments that Marc Dussellier builds will certainly help. Maybe not for people with PhD’s, but hopefully in areas of the world, where there are less means to buy expensive equipment.

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