The Loh Down On Science

A new use for smartphones is shaking things up!

Cam Floyd, WSJ.com

Siri—did you feel an earthquake?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, 

Saying surprise!  Your smartphone is already equipped with a device that knows.  It’s called a Micro-Electro-Mechanical System accelerometer.  It’s what tells your phone, “Hey, we’re sideways!”  Why?  To reorient your screen, of course.

Meet seismologists Antonino D'Alessandro and Giuseppe D'Anna of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.  They thought there might be a nobler calling for that cheap little chip.  So they tested the iPhone's accelerometer, comparing it with a widely used earthquake sensor.

How’d it go? Not too shaky!  iPhones detected moderate to strong earthquake activity when close to the quake’s epicenter.  Internal noise kept them from noticing quakes lower than magnitude five.  But the scientists surmise that with advances in technology, more sensitive accelerometers could soon be part of everybody’s smartphone.  

In a quake, this network of seismic devices could be programmed to alert authorities to the most critical areas.  It could speed up disaster relief efforts.

Everybody just has to keep their phones set to “vibrate.”  For better earthquake detection of course.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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