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10 Ways You Can Use Your Smartphone to Advance Science

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Your iPhone is not living up to its full potential. Sure, everyone loves posting pictures of their cats to Instagram, and the new RadioLab app is awesome. But we're living in the future! Why not use those tiny computers we're all carrying around for something bigger, like helping advance knowledge in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago?

Scientists have started to use the abilities and prevalence of smartphones to their advantage, creating apps specifically for their studies and crowdsourcing observation and data collection. When almost everyone has an Internet connection, a camera, and a GPS unit right in their phone, almost anyone can gather, organize, and submit data to help move a study along. Here are 10 projects and apps that will turn you into a citizen scientist.

1. Track Bird Populations

EBird, started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, is the world’s largest (97,987,797 observations as of the morning of July 10, 2012) online database of bird observations. Data gathered by smartphone-toting bird watchers around the world and shared via the BirdLog app is used by biologists, ornithologists, educators, land managers, conservationists and policy makers to track avian distribution, richness and biodiversity trends. They hope that “in time these data will become the foundation for a better understanding of bird distribution across the western hemisphere and beyond.” BirdLog is available for $9.99 iOS and Android devices

2. Map Meteoroids

NASA’s Meteor Counter app lets iOS users gather and share data about cosmic debris they spot in the sky. Using the app’s “piano key” interface, citizen scientists can quickly record the time, magnitude, latitude and longitude, and estimated brightness of shooting stars, and also annotate their observations with voice notes. When they’re done, they can upload everything to NASA so researchers can analyze the data. Don’t know where to look for meteors? The app also has a news feed and event calendar updated by professional astronomers to help you find upcoming meteor showers. Meteor Counter is available for free for iOS devices.

3. Listen in on Bats

The Indicator Bats Program (iBats), a joint project of the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology and The Bat Conservation Trust, got its start with a couple of researchers working in Transylvania (of course) in 2006. The idea of the project is to identify and monitor bat populations around the world by the ultrasonic echo-location calls they use to navigate and find prey. No easy task for the naked ear, but the iBats app can automatically extract key information from the calls, and identify the species from them. From there, the data gets sent to iBats so researchers can track any changes in abundance or distribution of different species. The app itself is free, but users also need an ultrasonic microphone to plug into their phone so the app can “hear” the call. These microphones can cost hundreds of dollars, and the folks behind the project encourage bat lovers to get together and chip in for one to share. iBats is available for free for iOS and Android devices

4. Count Roadkill

The Mammals on Roads project, run by the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), uses surveys of dead mammal sightings along the UK’s roads to get an idea of population and distribution trends. Their Mammals on Roads app logs the travel routes of citizen scientists and lets them easily record which animals they’ve seen and where. Users can see the collected data themselves in the form of maps of their own trips and distribution maps from reports sent in from all over the country. The survey, taken annually since 2001, helped spot a major drop in hedgehog numbers over the course of a few years and led to the PTES launching “Hogwatch” and other hedgehog-focused tracking and conservation projects. Mammals on Roads is available for free for iOS devices, and an Android version will be available soon.

5. Inventory your Local Wildlife

The goal of Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats) is pretty ambitious: “build the go-to platform for documenting all the world's organisms.” Their app has two modes. “Spottings” lets you take photos of plants and animals you see, categorize and describe them and then submit the data for viewing on NOAH’s website and use by researchers for population and distribution studies.

Don’t know what you’re looking at? Check a box when you submit your photo and other users and scientists can help you identify the species. You can also use the location-based field guides to see other users’ Spottings near your location and learn more about your local wildlife. “Field Missions” let you help out with crowdsourced data collection for specific studies that labs have submitted to NOAH. You might be asked to photograph invasive beetles near your home, or log GPS coordinates when migrating flocks of birds pass over you, and if discovering wildlife and helping scientists isn’t enough motivation, completing missions also earns you cool badges in the app. Project NOAH is available for free for  iOS and Android devices

6. Identify and Track Trees

Leafsnap, developed as a joint project by Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution, is an electronic field guide for trees that uses visual recognition software to identify tree species from photographs of their leaves. User-generated images, species identifications, and geo-tagged stamps of species' locations are automatically shared with the partner institutions and other scientists who can use the data to map and monitor changes in floral density and diversity. Currently, only tree species found in New York City and Washington, D.C., are supported by the recognition software, but the team is “teaching” it other species and the list will continue to grow. Leafsnap is available for free for iOS devices and an Android version will be available soon.

7. Keep Tabs on Temperatures

Communicating Climate Change (C3) is a program run by 12 science centers around the country that introduces citizen scientists to the methods used to study climate change. The Maryland Science Center’s C3 project invites people to help study Baltimore’s Urban Heat Island (a UHI is the phenomenon of a metropolitan area being significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas). Citizen scientists in Baltimore use the Temperature Blast app to collect live and archival Weatherbug data from select points around the city and log it for scientists at the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, who will then use it to create models of temperature patterns so they can mitigate the heat island effect in future urban planning. Temperature Blast is available for free for iOS and Android devices. If you’re not in the Baltimore area, there are other app-based C3 projects going on in other cities.

8. Monitor your local water

Citizen scientists using the Creek Watch app, developed by IBM’s Smarter Planet Project, collect four pieces of data - estimated amount of water, rate of flow, amount of trash and a picture - about waterways they pass and send it to IBM. The technology giant’s researchers aggregate the data and share it with water control boards across the U.S. to help them track pollution and better manage their water resources. Creek Watch is available for free for iOS devices (no word from IBM on an Android version yet).

9. Find Good Homes for Redwoods

Redwood Watch, a partnership between the Save the Redwoods League,, Google Earth Outreach, and the California Academy of Sciences, is recruiting citizen scientists to track the location of redwood trees and help find a home for them in the future. Just take a picture of a redwood wherever you see one - in a national park, a botanical garden or even your own yard - with the Redwood Watch app. The app sends the photo and your location to researchers who can use the data to assess which environments are healthiest for the trees, helping them understand where redwoods thrive in a changing climate so they can better focus their conservation efforts. Redwood watch is available for free for iOS devices.

10. Report Invaders

Invasive plants and animals can crowd out natives, compete with them for food sources and alter the fire ecology of an ecosystem, disrupting its natural balance. Researchers and programmers from UCLA, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the University of Georgia have teamed up to create the What’s Invasive citizen science program and smartphone app. Volunteers can use the app to look up lists of the top invasive species in their area, created by National Park Service rangers and biologists. If they spot a plant or animal from the list, they submit a geo-tagged observation, with optional picture and text notes, so that scientists can locate, identify, study try to remove the species. The What’s Invasive app is available for free for iOS and Android devices.
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This is just a drop in the bucket of cool projects that let the average Joe take part in important science. For more projects you can help out with, some app-based, some not, check out the resources at Cornell’s Citizen Science Central, SciStarter and Scientific American. Are you involved in a citizen science project? Tell us all about it.

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
Astronomers Observe a New Kind of Massive Cosmic Collision for the First Time
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NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

For the first time, astronomers have detected the colossal blast produced by the merger of two neutron stars—and they've recorded it both via the gravitational waves the event produced, as well as the flash of light it emitted.

Physicists believe that the pair of neutron stars—ultra-dense stars formed when a massive star collapses, following a supernova explosion—had been locked in a death spiral just before their final collision and merger. As they spiraled inward, a burst of gravitational waves was released; when they finally smashed together, high-energy electromagnetic radiation known as gamma rays were emitted. In the days that followed, electromagnetic radiation at many other wavelengths—X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves—were released. (Imagine all the instruments in an orchestra, from the lowest bassoons to the highest piccolos, playing a short, loud note all at once.)

This is the first time such a collision has been observed, as well as the first time that both kinds of observations—gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation—have been recorded from the same event, a feat that required co-operation among some 70 different observatories around the world, including ground-based observatories, orbiting telescopes, the U.S. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and European Virgo gravitational wave detectors.

"For me, it feels like the dawning of a next era in astrophysics," Julie McEnery, project scientist for NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, one of the first instruments to record the burst of energy from the cosmic collision, tells Mental Floss. "With this observation, we've connected these new gravitational wave observations to the rest of the observations that we've been doing in astrophysics for a very long time."


The observations represent a breakthrough on several fronts. Until now, the only events detected via gravitational waves have been mergers of black holes; with these new results, it seems likely that gravitational wave technology—which is still in its infancy—will open many new phenomena to scientific scrutiny. At the same time, very little was known about the physics of neutron stars—especially their violent, final moments—until now. The observations are also shedding new light on the origin of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)—extremely energetic explosions seen in distant galaxies. As well, the research may offer clues as to how the heavier elements, such as gold, platinum, and uranium, formed.

Astronomers around the world are thrilled by the latest findings, as today's flurry of excitement attests. The LIGO-Virgo results are being published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; further articles are due to be published in other journals, including Nature and Science, in the weeks ahead. Scientists also described the findings today at press briefings hosted by the National Science Foundation (the agency that funds LIGO) in Washington, and at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

(Rumors of the breakthrough had been swirling for weeks; in August, astronomer J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas at Austin tweeted, "New LIGO. Source with optical counterpart. Blow your sox off!" He and another scientist who tweeted have since apologized for doing so prematurely, but this morning, minutes after the news officially broke, Wheeler tweeted, "Socks off!") 

The neutron star merger happened in a galaxy known as NGC 4993, located some 130 million light years from our own Milky Way, in the direction of the southern constellation Hydra.

Gravitational wave astronomy is barely a year and a half old. The first detection of gravitational waves—physicists describe them as ripples in space-time—came in fall 2015, when the signal from a pair of merging black holes was recorded by the LIGO detectors. The discovery was announced in February 2016 to great fanfare, and was honored with this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Virgo, a European gravitational wave detector, went online in 2007 and was upgraded last year; together, they allow astronomers to accurately pin down the location of gravitational wave sources for the first time. The addition of Virgo also allows for a greater sensitivity than LIGO could achieve on its own.

LIGO previously recorded four different instances of colliding black holes—objects with masses between seven times the mass of the Sun and a bit less than 40 times the mass of the Sun. This new signal was weaker than that produced by the black holes, but also lasted longer, persisting for about 100 seconds; the data suggested the objects were too small to be black holes, but instead were neutron stars, with masses of about 1.1 and 1.6 times the Sun's mass. (In spite of their heft, neutron stars are tiny, with diameters of only a dozen or so miles.) Another key difference is that while black hole collisions can be detected only via gravitational waves—black holes are black, after all—neutron star collisions can actually be seen.


When the gravitational wave signal was recorded, on the morning of August 17, observatories around the world were notified and began scanning the sky in search of an optical counterpart. Even before the LIGO bulletin went out, however, the orbiting Fermi telescope, which can receive high-energy gamma rays from all directions in the sky at once, had caught something, receiving a signal less than two seconds after the gravitational wave signal tripped the LIGO detectors. This was presumed to be a gamma-ray burst, an explosion of gamma rays seen in deep space. Astronomers had recorded such bursts sporadically since the 1960s; however, their physical cause was never certain. Merging neutron stars had been a suggested culprit for at least some of these explosions.

"This is exactly what we'd hoped to see," says McEnery. "A gamma ray burst requires a colossal release of energy, and one of the hypotheses for what powers at least some of them—the ones that have durations of less than two seconds—was the merger of two neutron stars … We had hoped that we would see a gamma ray burst and a gravitational wave signal together, so it's fantastic to finally actually do this."

With preliminary data from LIGO and Virgo, combined with the Fermi data, scientists could tell with reasonable precision what direction in the sky the signal had come from—and dozens of telescopes at observatories around the world, including the U.S. Gemini telescopes, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope, were quickly re-aimed toward Hydra, in the direction of reported signal.

The telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile were well-placed for getting a first look—because the bulletin arrived in the morning, however, they had to wait until the sun dropped below the horizon.

"We had about eight to 10 hours, until sunset in Chile, to prepare for this," Maria Drout, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in in Pasadena, California, which runs the Las Campanas telescopes, tells Mental Floss. She was connected by Skype to the astronomers in the control rooms of three different telescopes at Las Campanas, as they prepared to train their telescopes at the target region. "Usually you prepare a month in advance for an observing run on these telescopes, but this was all happening in a few hours," Drout says. She and her colleagues prepared a target list of about 100 galaxies, but less than one-tenth of the way through the list, by luck, they found it: a tiny blip of light in NGC 4993 that wasn't visible on archival images of the same galaxy. (It was the 1-meter Swope telescope that snagged the first images.)


When a new star-like object in a distant galaxy is spotted, a typical first guess is that it's a supernova (an exploding star). But this new object was changing very rapidly, growing 100 times dimmer over just a few days while also quickly becoming redder—which supernovae don't do, explains Drout, who is cross-appointed at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. "We ended up following it for three weeks or so, and by the end, it was very clear that this [neutron star merger] was what we were looking at," she says.

The researchers say they can't be sure if the resulting object was another, larger neutron star, or whether it would have been so massive that it would have collapsed into a black hole.

As exciting as the original detection of gravitational waves last year was, Drout is looking forward to a new era in which both gravitational waves and traditional telescopes can be used to study the same objects. "We can learn a lot more about these types of extreme systems that exist in the universe, by coupling the two together," she says.

The detection shows that "gravitational wave science is moving from being a physics experiment to being a tool for astronomers," Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who is not involved in the current research, tells Mental Floss. "So I think it's a pretty big deal."

Physicists are also learning something new about the origin of the heaviest elements in the periodic table. For many years, these were thought to arise from supernova explosions, but spectroscopic data from the newly observed neutron star merger (in which light is broken up into its component colors) suggests that such explosion produce enormous quantities of heavy elements—including enough gold to put Fort Knox to shame. (The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, the scientists say.) "It's telling us that most of the gold that we know about is produced in these mergers, and not in supernovae," McEnery says.

Editor's note: This post has been updated.


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