Sunday, January 13, 2008

On laptop accelerometers

I'm afraid I can't remember in whose blog I saw a link to SeisMac, a piece of freeware that uses the accelerometer built in to Intel Mac laptops to "convert" the computer into a seismometer. I do recall, though, how geekishly excited about the idea of that software I was, and then how disappointed I was when all of the times I tried to download it resulted in error messages. But now it seems that I'll be getting a chance to run some similar software on my MacBook after all.

It turns out that one of my professors is working on a project that aims to take laptop accelerometer readings beyond just a neat thing to watch on your screen, a fantastic procrastination tool, or a means for comparing the waveforms of actual earthquakes to the jolts caused by an overenthusiastic upstairs neighbor getting too involved in Wii Tennis (not that I have experience with such neighbors, of course not...). The software being developed for the Quake-Catcher Network will take that laptop accelerometer data and use it to help narrow in on epicenter locations, map shaking, and even give some degree of early warning for larger events. For people who only have desktops or whose laptop is too old to have a built in sensor, the project also involves development of a flash drive-sized USB accelerometer. (Even though my only computer is a laptop, I kind of want one of the USB accelerometers anyway, simply because the concept of carrying around seismic instruments on one's keychain makes me geekishly happy.)

The software is nearing the point where it will be tested by larger groups of people than just the developers, and even though I'm not technically admitted to the program here yet, I still get to help with that test. I'm sure I'll be writing more about how that goes once it gets started.

Another aspect I find particularly exciting about QCN is that there have been plans to use it for education from the get go. This should definitely show students (and non-geoscience-specific teachers) a side of California's chronic shakiness that they haven't seen before, which will hopefully in turn increase general awareness of how earthquakes happen and how seismic networks work, and maybe even prompt a few people to go on to formally study this stuff. I get the impression both from my own K-12 experience in northern Virginia and from talking with people in California that earth science is not considered by whoever comes up with the curriculim to be as serious of a science as biology, chemistry, or physics. In Virginia, there's an earth science unit in fifth grade science, and then a year-long basic geoscience class in high school (which, at the science and tech magnet high school I attended, was outright considered a joke class by most of the students); the other day, I was told that fifth grade is the only time some parts of California have earth science in the public school curriculum. I find it very strange that a state with little to no active geological processes would teach more than a state known for its earthquakes, mudslides, and fires, but at the same time, I'm not surprised based on some responses in the introductory geology class I took in university - only about a quarter of the class knew what the San Andreas Fault was (they'd heard the name, but couldn't explain what it actually is), never mind that it's only twelve miles from campus. Ideally, the curriculum will be expanded sooner than later to include more geoscience, but it seems to me that things like the QCN software used in schools will make the limited study that there is now more hands-on and meaningful.


Tuff Cookie said...

Now this is a seriously cool idea. I have been jealous of the SeisMac program for a while because (a) I don't own a Mac to use it on and (b) my laptop has no accelerometer. I would be extremely happy to get my hands on a plug-in version - the last time I had a working seismometer hooked up to my machine, it was on loan from IRIS and I had to give it back. :(

A NOVA transplant, eh? Do I know you? Are you one of those TJ kids? (I had the Fairfax County experience, and remember being quite disappointed with the Earth Science curriculum.)

Anyway, my current job is to promote Earth Science education - we have to convince people that it's not just the cop-out class for when you don't want to take physics, chem or bio!

Julian said...

Woah. What are the odds?

I am, in fact, one of those TJ kids - class of 2002. Were you also, or somewhere else in Fairfax County? Even at the time I was taking it, I thought of the geoscience class at TJ as an interesting subject made boring by how the class itself was structured.

Your current job sounds awesomely worthwhile. I hope schools pick up on what you're doing!

Tuff Cookie said...

I'm West Potomac class of 2003 - small world!

We had "Geosystems", which is what you took when you didn't want to try the AP classes. I skipped it in favor of AP Chem, but only because I knew I would be bored to death in it.

Ron Schott said...

For those of us who know NOVA primarily as one of the best programs on television (yes, I figured out you were talking about northern Virginia) could you fill us in on the "TJ Kids"? I'm eager to learn about any earth science programs in the college prep years.

And on the main topic of the post, do you know of any SeisMac-equivalent software on the Windows side, Julian? I've got an XPlore tablet that I think must have an accelerometer and I'd really love to make a demonstration like this in my Intro Geology classes.


Julian said...

"TJ" is the much-easier-to-handle name for the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. It's technically a Fairfax County public school, though its magnet reputation draws in students from all over northern Virginia - apparently over 2,500 people apply each year, but they only take about 450 per class. TJ is definitely one of those schools where overachieving is underachieving, which makes for a very high-stress environment, but now that I'm trying to get back into science school, I'm particularly glad I went to a place where the bar on science classes was set to more of a college level.

But an earth science prep program it definitely was not. We had to take two science classes per year, with classwork during senior year dominated by designing, conducting, and presenting an experiment in one of the various tech labs. And yet out of all of those classes and labs, there were really only two earth sciences classes: oceanography, which was apparently more marine biology than anything else, and basic Geosystems, which was required to be taught by the county, was assigned senior year, and was treated as a completely secondary course relative to tech lab and was barely taken seriously by anyone at all. If there had been elective geology-related classes earlier on, I would have taken them, but we had no such thing.

I don't know of any current Windows software that's equivalent to SeisMac, but I've also never looked. The Quake-Catcher Network software should work across several platforms, though, once it's finished. I'll let you know if I come across something else before then!

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