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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Rick Beckman