Your smartphone is packed with sensors and miniaturized equipment. Instead of using them to snap photos or message friends, harness those instruments for the sake of science. Software can turn a phone into a mobile science laboratory, letting you make research observations, track earthquakes, study birds and stars and the elements, and even project a virtual particle accelerator. Here are some of our favorite apps for doing science on your smartphone.
Many of these apps let users take part in publishable research and conservation efforts. For example, amateur bird-watchers should download eBird. The app, managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, not only lets you identify and log bird sightings, but also makes it easy to share those findings with others—including scientists who plot bird populations around the globe.
First, install the free app. Then use its friendly, intuitive interface to plot your location and mark the birds you spot in the area. In addition to observing and sharing, the app also helps you identify puzzling species, provides data on common sightings in your locale, directs you toward nearby bird hotspots, and flags you when the opportunity arises for a potentially rare sighting. If you go birding in more remote regions, don’t worry—eBird also works offline.
2. Star Walk
Is that bright dot overhead a star or a planet? Ask your phone. Star Walk will use the sensors in your device to figure out where you are—and which celestial objects your camera has in its sights. Then it tells you a little about the stars and planets you’re looking at.
Even if you’re not currently gazing at the stars, the app will offer information about the night sky—it can even track the ISS across space. From sunset times to the geological make-up of Mars, you’ll find a ton of scientific content to explore. The app is free—if you don’t mind putting up with ads. For an ad-free version, you’ll have to pony up $3.
3. NASA Globe Observer
The NASA Globe Observer is another app that relies on your findings to inform official scientific research. Currently, you can use it to collect data in three areas: cloud cover, land cover, and mosquito habitats. In each case, you snap photos and observe conditions, then submit this information to NASA.
For example, say you decide to help out with clouds. With the app, you can snap shots of the sky, identify the types of fluff you see, and log your location using your phone’s GPS sensors. Then NASA can compare what you’ve recorded with satellite imagery. This lets scientists build up a better picture of weather conditions and systems, which is invaluable for future research.
Researchers at the University of California – Berkeley’s Seismological Laboratory want to use smartphones to build up a global picture of seismic activity. That’s why they developed MyShake. This app relies on your phone’s sensors to gather data, but it does so in the background, without affecting your device’s usual activity. Then researchers can use that information to improve their models of earthquake activity and refine their prediction systems.
The app itself is simple to use—it runs silently in the background, logging seismic activity and identifying genuine earthquake tremors (as opposed to jolts from your morning jog). However, you can use it for more than mere data collection. MyShake also lets you view recent seismic movements nearby or anywhere in the world, and it provides advice on what to do in the event of an earthquake. Ultimately though, the main purpose is research—research that could end up saving lives down the line.
MyShake is free for Android
5. The Elements
The periodic table is full of fascinating elements, and yet somehow, it remains lamely two-dimensional. Flesh it out with The Elements, an interactive digital resource for iOS devices. (Disclosure: Popular Science contributor Theodore Gray created this app.) It displays each of the elements in its physical form, alongside information about it.
For every element, you can zoom in to the object and rotate it in three dimensions. This comes with quick facts as well as more in-depth background details, such as properties, how it was discovered, its applications, and even its current price on the open market. The app also informs users about the periodic table as a whole. Although it has a steeper price than many on this list, this is a fantastic educational app—you’ll keep coming back to it.
The Elements is $9 for iOS
Ever wanted to build a particle accelerator in your spare room? This intriguing app lets you do just that—virtually—through the magic of augmented reality. The app lets your phone’s camera overlay digital graphics of a rudimentary particle accelerator on top of the physical world. It’s not quite the Large Hadron Collider, but it’s still impressive.
You do need some physical markers, in the form of paper cubes, to make this work. Once you’ve downloaded the app, access these instructions on the AcceleratAR website. As you set things up, you’ll learn about the physics of particle accelerators and electromagnetic fields—even if the particles whizzing around your coffee table are only virtual.
AcceleratAR is free for Android
7. Wolfram Alpha
Forget your graphing calculator. Wolfram Alpha (which you can also access through its website) is a supercharged search and calculation engine. This app can chart physics and chemistry formulas, list the properties of materials, display information on Earth’s geological layers, produce detailed star maps, and much more.
Need to know how several metallic alloys compare, or analyze the motion of a spring pendulum, or compare the energy production of two countries? Wolfram Alpha can toss out the answer in seconds. It goes way beyond scientific data too—this tool will solve complex math equations, convert between units of measurement, and even help you access weather data.
8. Science Journal
Google’s Science Journal app gives you tools to record data about the conditions around you. It can, for instance, harness the sensors in your phone to take light, sound, pressure, and motion readings. It can also connect with external sensors over Bluetooth to gather data through those instruments. Within the app, you can supplement your observations with notes and photos.
The neat, well-designed interface makes it easy to log data manually or have the app gather it automatically. You can also revisit your previously-recorded logs and export this data to other apps, such as spreadsheet programs. This lets you keep working from your phone, your computer, or a web browser on any device.