Ph.D. on hold, White House fellow’s stars align at NASA

During his undergraduate days at Swarthmore, Dan Hammer was arrested once for attempting to buy too much Vaseline from a Rite-Aid in Philadelphia. As is common with “speedcubers,” Hammer merely wanted to keep his Rubik’s Cube properly lubricated. It was just his luck that police suspected a homeless man of aiding and abetting a bank robbery the night before by hurling a Molotov cocktail.

Dan Hammer, with Rubik's cube

Dan Hammer, back in Berkeley during a break as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, cheerfully solves a borrowed, poorly lubricated Rubik’s Cube.

“I’d just started coding, so I wasn’t showering, and I had this big beard and long hair,” recalls Hammer, now a well-scrubbed, respectable-looking Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. “They thought I was this homeless person, and they put me in handcuffs and took me to the station.”

It’s been that kind of journey for Hammer, who, at 30, finds himself living under his parents’ roof again, in the very house where he was raised. In contrast to the standard narrative, though, his current sleeping arrangements aren’t due to a sluggish economy or lack of marketable skills, but to a rare alignment of the personal and professional. The reason he’s back where he started is that he’s spending a year in Washington, D.C., as an elite Presidential Innovation Fellow.

Like the quantum computer he works with for NASA, Hammer seems to inhabit a sort of extra-dimensional state, moving ahead to new, ever-more challenging problems even as he’s returned to his childhood bedroom. Now studying resource economics at Berkeley, he’s logged a remarkably high-achieving three decades on planet Earth. He’s served as a volunteer firefighter — both at Swarthmore and, for two summers, in Bolivia — co-created the algorithm that led to Global Forest Watch, and taught at San Quentin, an ongoing passion. He’s built and raced outrigger canoes in the South Pacific, and was part of the dragonboat crew that set the 500-meter world record in Sydney in 2007. He’s conquered a well-lubed Rubik’s Cube in 27 seconds, a personal best.

And, of course, there’s that White House fellowship. The highly selective stint — he’s one of just 23 fellows chosen in 2014 — has temporarily taken him from the Bay Area, where he shares a home with his wife, a third-year medical resident at UCSF who works with underserved populations in the Tenderloin and other low-income neighborhoods.

Achievement runs in the family. His father is a professor of development economics at Princeton, and his mother is a senior program research adviser with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“They have a lot of degrees between them,” says Hammer, back in Berkeley during a break from his D.C. duties. “I’ve yet to finish a graduate degree, but they have plenty to go around.”

Hammer himself initially “hated” Swarthmore, his father’s alma mater, finding it to be “a pressure cooker.” He struggled as a freshman, then took a year off to work in Hawaii, building and racing boats and earning money as a landscaper.

“I think I just wasn’t ready for college at the time,” he says of his freshman year. After Hawaii, however, “I came back and loved it. So, since then, I’ve been focusing on those things that really get me going. I spend a lot of the day doing the things that don’t require that much extra energy — things that are inherently energizing.”

To Hammer, that’s a broad category, and includes building and racing outrigger canoes, the thing he focused on immediately after graduating. He was awarded a Watson fellowship, “this boondoggle of a fellowship where you just do one year of whatever floats your boat. For me, that was actually a boat.”

The hitch was that fellows had to agree not to return to the United States for the entire year, meaning he not only couldn’t go home, but couldn’t go back to Hawaii, either, where outrigger canoe paddling is the official team sport. He chose Polynesia instead, apprenticing with a traditional Tongan canoe carver and racing in Australia and New Zealand.

When his fellowship was up, Hammer started the D.C-based Center for Global Development, partnering with an environmental economist to investigate the economic drivers of deforestation. Hammer had “tried to get away” from what he himself calls a dismal science, but, like his father, “just spoke the language of economics.” And, as an avid camper and hiker — including experience with programs like Outward Bound and NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School — environmental economics “seemed like a natural fit.”

He got into coding by necessity. “It was like, we need to figure out where deforestation is happening, and the way to do that is with satellite imagery. But it’s so big — there’s so much information — that you can’t do it manually. It was a way to engage with the computational power required to pick apart that data.” The algorithm they came up with grew into Global Forest Watch, later adopted and expanded by the World Resources Institute.

It also laid more groundwork for his selection this year as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, which gives him the opportunity to “remote in” to one of the world’s few existing quantum computers, at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, from, say, a Capitol Hill coffee house — and to find ways to make it easier for others to engage with a form of computation he calls “totally wackadoo.”

Taking on ones and zeroes, all at once

“It’s basically harnessing this new and crazy way in which these quantum bits behave,” he says, explaining that unlike conventional computers, which understand data in terms of ones or zeroes, quantum computers “can take on both one and zero at the same time.”

“Big data basically means so much information that you can’t use traditional tools to process it,” he says. “This would allow for problems that could not be solved in finite time to be solved. It opens up a new class of questions to be asked, involving huge amounts of information.”

From his office at NASA headquarters, he’s also working to help developers manipulate the agency’s spectacular images of Earth and Mars, and to help NASA itself understand how visitors to its website — some 31 million of them every month — interact with the agency.

“The role of government from an economics perspective is that it provides public goods, things that wouldn’t ordinarily get provided by individual citizens. And I love the idea of information being a part of that,” Hammer says. “This offered that opportunity in a very real way, in a position where policies are made about transparency in government, providing government information in a way that can be used by the public, in the true spirit of a public good.”

If public-spiritedness helps explains why he applied for the White House fellowship, it also explains his passion for teaching, and particularly for teaching algebra, statistics and pre-calculus at San Quentin under the auspices of the Prison University Project, an initiative started by a Berkeley Ph.D. He’s taught at the Marin County facility for four semesters, and plans to resume once he’s back in the Bay Area.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I thought the only way to do that was to go down the academic route, to be a professor,” he says. “And I’m realizing now that’s not necessarily true.”

Hammer, who’s taught graduate econometrics at Berkeley, says grad students “don’t really have to be there — they’re sort of passively engaged. But these guys are on the edge of their seats. It’s incredibly energizing in this way that’s also totally exhausting, right when you get out. When I got back to my car I’d be dead.”

At the prison, he says, he saw “stories of actual redemption — not societal redemption, but internal redemption” — an experience he calls “incredibly powerful, and absolutely humbling. It’s something you carry with you all the time.”

“You can engage abstractly with economic development, trying to think of ways in which to support public goods, or positive externalities, or any other economic term you can think of,” he says. “But to really be a part of someone who’s asking for help, and being able to give it — this is powerful stuff.”

Hammer, though, isn’t the binary type, willing to settle for either/or. He’s a multitasker at heart. And it definitely helps that he doesn’t spend much of his life sleeping, regardless of where in the world he lays his head.

“I’m an insomniac,” Hammer admits. “I do get a lot of work done as a result.”