Contribute to the Frontiers of Science with Nothing but Your Smartphone

Just over a decade ago, I had finished a months long DIY project: I had built, from parts old & new, a pretty powerful (for its time) desktop computer. Doing so was, of course, a pretty remarkable feeling in and of itself, but then having a beast of a computer let me do something even cooler: I loaded it up with a couple distributed computing programs and donated my idle computer power to protein folding research, the search for extraterrestrial life, or various other projects.

I loved the feeling of being able to contribute in a direct way to the scientific bettering of humankind, but when I transitioned entirely to a MacBook laptop, I abandoned the distributed computing scene; don’t get me wrong, I did try it, but it made my laptop run incredibly hot regardless of how I set the throttling on the research. Rather than shorten the life of my computer, I cut the distributing computing projects from my life. That was about half a decade ago, thereabouts.

Flash forward a few years, and I now have a smartphone — a powerful device that, particularly when it’s charging, sits idle, doing little more than awaiting the next push notification. The idea that my phone could be crunching numbers for SETI or some other research group has crossed my mind numerous times since first getting my phone, but searches of the App Store have never turned anything of that nature up.

That was frustrating because smartphones are incredibly versatile in just what they can process or detect. I remember when I first heard about phones containing barometric pressure sensors — useful for fitness apps to detect whether you’re going up and down stairs, for instance, by detecting variations in atmospheric pressure) — thinking that a clever climatology group could take advantage of the distributed weather stations that smartphones represent, data mining atmospheric information on an extremely local scale. Of course, a phone would probably have to know whether it was indoors and outdoors to provide good data, but crowdsourcing the weather isn’t that farfetched of an idea.

As it turns out, thinking about the weather was thinking too small. I recently came across an app — still in beta and not freely available to the public yet — called Crayfis which encouraged me to think far more cosmically.

What is Crayfis?

Crayfis is an app which leverages the digital sensor present in smartphone cameras to detect cosmic rays. What this means is that users of the app are allowing their phones to serve as supplemental sensors in the detection of high-energy particles from deep space, particles which ordinarily require massive, expensive sensors to detect with any certainty, such as the Auger Hybrid Detector.

Crayfis is designed to take advantage of the fact that there are hundreds of millions of smartphones in the world, spread out all over, capable of detecting a cosmic ray event. This is important: When a cosmic ray strikes the atmosphere, a shower of lower-energy particles rains down on Earth over huge areas. Localized antennae have to overcome the challenge of detecting only a tiny area of a much larger event, which is a hurdle that smartphones don’t have given how many of them there are. Many sensors over huge areas allows for far easier detection of the particle rain, which provides data necessary for studying cosmic rays.

The appeal of utilizing an already deployed global network of sensors to do a job that is difficult even for expensive, purpose-built detectors should be obvious!

Why Cosmic Rays?

Short answer: Because high-energy cosmic rays are a mystery. What causes them isn’t known. It makes sense that we should be able to see where the cosmic rays are going and then work backward to see where they have come from, but when scientists have done that, they don’t find anything that could have caused such a high-energy particle to be launched through the cosmos!

It has been deduced that they come from without our galaxy, but beyond that? It’s been thought that maybe they have as their source remnants of the Big Bang itself, which is pretty cool!

At this point, though, it’s a big mystery, one which we can take part in by joining the Crayfis project.

Using the App

First, let me just point out that the Crayfis app is currently in limited invitation-only beta testing. As much as I encourage you to sign up to participate in the Crayfis project, I have to say that you may not get invited to participate. That’s just how it works with things like this.

I nudged the makers on Twitter (@crayfisapp), expressing my excitement to participate, and I had a beta invite within minutes. Your mileage may vary, but it’s worth a shot!

The iOS app was pretty straightforward. There’s a profile area that shows everything that your phone has detected — in the few hours I had mine detecting, there were several hundred hits, with half a dozen or so “clean” hits that had a higher likelihood of originating from high energy cosmic rays. Most of the other hits are caused by simple background noise, I’d learn after reaching out to the developers of the app for clarification

At least on iOS, the Crayfis app must be the currently active app to collect data; this means that you can’t open Crayfis, then switch to another app or the home screen and expect it to work. I’m okay with that limitation because it ensures that Crayfis only runs when I intend for it to be running, a boon given how battery-hungry the app admits to being.

This does not, however, mean that your screen will constantly display a bright app while resting on the table. There is a “sleep” button within the app itself that allows you to black out the screen while keeping the app active. A simple tap to the screen returns the app to normal and triggers a report of how many detections the app has measured since the last time it was not in sleep mode.

I also like that the app tracks your rank both for you as a user (across all devices you run Crayfis on) and for your devices themselves — the longer you keep Crayfis running, the higher you can rank. I love socially competitive apps like that!

Unfortunately, my beta of the app has expired, so I cannot get screenshots at this point, but I encourage you to check out the Crayfis website, to sign up, and check out what they’re all about.

This is an exciting project, allowing all of us as “citizen scientists” to help contribute meaningful data to an interesting, active area of scientific discovery. Cosmic rays, after all, are a bit of that “final frontier” that we yearn to learn about, to explore, to understand; as citizen scientists, we can all help make that happen.

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