My Clock is Not a Bomb, and Other Tales of Threat-Free Tinkering

Today’s edition of Irrational Fear is Squishing Science left me pondering: What projects have you been working on that would get you hassled by the wire-fearful? And could you actually build a clock without looking up instructions?

A depressing reoccurring theme in the United States is that students of colour should not attempt science or engineering. Lewis Casey’s chemistry set had nothing to do with meth, Kiera Wilmot’s curiosity wasn’t destructive, and Ahmed Mohamed’s homemade clock wasn’t a bomb. But this time we’re getting a tiny shred of a silver lining.

Mohamed brought his electronic creation to school in an effort to find and join whatever passed for the local community of tinkerers. Irving, Texas failed him big-time, but the internet is stepping up to wrap him in their slightly-oily arms. From invitations to apply to tech universities in a few years to offers to join NASA’s ranks of engineers to a Presidential invite to visit the Maker-friendly White House, Mohamed is being told loud and clear that he’s not alone.


But two particular trends are making me very, very happy:

  1. Scientists and engineers showing off the crazy tangled wires of whatever breadboarded contraptions would most certainly get them in trouble at MacArthur High School.
  2. Scientists and engineers puzzling over if they could actually figure out how to build a clock from scratch.

So, what’s that fine mess of wires? It’s not a bomb, or anything that would pose a threat to a classroom of students. That’s a LiDAR unit that engineer Steve Collins has been fiddling with under the careful supervision of the photobombing Curiosity rover stand-in Maggie.


A groundwater detection prototype at Science Hack Day 2014 in San Francisco. Image credit: Mika McKinnon

For me, my messy wiring on the groundwater detection prototype I made out of an Arduino, a USB battery, and a handful of scrounged pinflags would inevitably get me sent to the Principal’s Office. It’s a safe bet nearly every other rapid prototype project made at any Science Hack Day would earn equal disapproval.


What are you working on that would get you harassed when faced by someone intimidated by wires? And how would you build a clock if you weren’t allowed to look up instructions online?

Top image: A DIY LiDAR unit. Credit: @LongHairNasaGuy

Contact the author at or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.


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