Back in California, in the dynamic city of Oakland where the great and promising community of citizen scientist Counter Culture Labs gets together. Matthew Harbowy, one of its active members, tells us his huge curiosity and pleasure about science and his deep desire to make everyone a part of it.
Could you introduce yourself?
Matt Harbowy: I am a scientist and programmer currently employed in the field of QC Informatics. My professional career has been dedicated to something I refer to as “semantic ontology”- finding new ways to talk about and understand, and communicate, reality. Proust says: “Le seul véritable voyage… ce ne serait pas d’aller vers de nouveaux paysages, mais d’avoir d’autres yeux…” Seeing ordinary things with different eyes often results in remarkable new insights. For my undergraduate research, I studied the mechanism of a centuries-old reaction with the new eyes of chemical kinetics and the tools of spectrophotometry and micelle formation, and came to some very new observations never before reported. After graduation, I worked as a food scientist and tea chemist, and developed dozens of new ways of looking at an ossified colonial plantation point of view to gain a better understanding of the science behind green and black tea. Today, I help give scientists and regulatory bodies new eyes into the world of safety and purity data on pharmaceuticals, through scientific data management and visualization, statistical tools, and best practices gleaned from listening to the stories and experiences of many different people.
What does hacking represent for you?
There’s a quiet revolution going on, one in which a shrinking pool of elite “nerds” grow increasingly specialized and “stuck” in a process that not only tethers their ability to do great things, but also creates huge gaps between them and the “average Joe”. This widens income inequality and deifies fields which can “fail quickly and often”. Hacking is the ultimate expression of this, and the culture of hacking has always been elitist and non-egalitarian.
Biohacking means something completely different. Although we are “hackers” in the sense that we operate outside traditional institutions, we seek to implement a more egalitarian world view, by making the tools and techniques of science accessible to everyone, and bringing cooks, farmers, mechanics, hobbyists, programmers, all sorts of people into the realm of science. Science asks us not to speak from authority or law, but from skepticism, doubt, and diversity- not in a nihilistic “all points are equally valid” way, but in a “if this is true, what happens?” way, to look at many alternatives and test, challenge, constantly.
What do you expect from a hackerspace?
I am intensely curious about a great many things, and a biohackerspace provides me with a way to bring me out of my head and into the realms of other people. We nourish each other with our excitement, and sustain people by bringing lots of alternative viewpoints to the table. Some people might join a softball team to gain that sense of team accomplishment, but science hasn’t done a good job of rewarding team “game” within science, and as a result you see loss of diversity. At some point, kids go from everyone excited to do a science experiment to a situation dominated by a few lone “smart” kids, predominantly white males. Big science, though, isn’t done by a handful of super smart people, it’s an invisible coalition of lots of quite-ordinary people, the true “giant” that Einstein claimed to stand upon.
Right now, I’m interested in Bamboo, and Extremophiles. I think it would be cool to float living colonies of bamboo and other plants high in the atmosphere on Venus. I’d like to seed the Venusian atmosphere with anaerobic extremophiles! Because the air on Venus is 95% carbon dioxide and very dense, it is better understood as a supercritical fluid. Somewhat like the floating island in “Life of Pi”, oxygen and nitrogen at earth-like pressures and temperatures could “float” islands of habitablity, perhaps made of bamboo, far above the inhospitable Venusian surface. Now, I know very little about supercritical fluids, culturing extremophiles, space travel and life in space, or how to grow bamboo, but all of those things (except for actual space travel… yet) can be explored and tested in kitchens, garages, and hackerspaces with chemicals and biologics no more dangerous than might be found in any average household. There are brilliant YouTube videos showing these things off. But rather than going it alone in my garage, I want to open things up and share my toys and knowledge with the world. I don’t need a PhD in plant tissue culture- I can have a chat with gardeners and interested scientists and use the art of “play” to gain new insights.
Biohackerspaces are a way to tinker and play while receiving the expertise and guidance of others to keep it safe and sane. It is a space for adults (really kids aged 1 to 99+) to dream and imagine a world where sharing and exploration are encouraged and valued.
I’m fairly lucky and privileged that for most of my career, I’ve had time and resources to play and explore, and bring that innovation into the corporate culture. That privilege is conferred with a responsibility: to share that with all people.
Counter Culture Labs, in that sense, is how I give that back to my community.
>> Picture: Dailylaurel (CC)