Saturday, March 13, 2010

Things That Make You Go Wow

Connecting home computers via the internet to collect or analyse massive amounts of data on the cheap is not a particularly new idea. More than a decade ago, SETI ("Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence") set up such a system to assist the research program at the University of California Berkely analyse the data received from the Arecibo radio telescope. Thousands of people with home computers signed up and downloaded the software which enabled those computers to crunch the numbers of packets sent to the participating user. The program operated in the background with no appreciable loss of speed while the user surfed the net or hung out in chat rooms. What would have cost the researchers hundreds of thousands of dollars was done virtually for free. This program is still operating.

The concept is a workable one, and there are all sorts of research programs which have such projects. The latest one to catch my eye involves earthquake detection, certainly a timely topic, especially for those of us who live in seismically active areas.

From the Los Angeles Times:

If Elizabeth Cochran allowed herself to dream, the future would look something like this:

Every personal computer would double as a seismic monitor. That MacBook at the coffee house, the one used by the guy pounding out a screenplay? Working to detect ground tremors while its user sips a latte. The aging PC gathering dust in the guest room? Ready to catch the next quake.

If Cochran, an earth scientist at UC Riverside, has her way, every time the ground beneath us shakes, those machines would capture its movement and feed the information to a central computer system, creating a rich -- and inexpensive -- portrait of how and where an earthquake is felt.

Such a network could dramatically boost our understanding of earthquakes -- and bring researchers a step closer to an earthquake early-warning system that could give emergency officials vital seconds of preparation as a catastrophic temblor moved through the region. ...

In the event of a huge quake, the network could potentially give areas miles away from the epicenter a few seconds of warning. Shock waves from a quake move quickly through the ground, but electronic signals are far faster, allowing warnings to outrun temblors.

Such notification might allow emergency officials in Ventura to shut off gas and water lines, stop trains and raise fire station doors immediately after a quake hits in the Salton Sea.

Ms. Cochran, apparently indefatigable, has been traveling all over the state plumping the program with success here in California. The program has reached all parts of the world, including some areas that might be inaccessible for various geographic and/or political reasons.

If you're interested in joining the program, go over to the Quake-Catcher Network to download the software and purchase the hardware (which may be needed if your computer doesn't have an accelerometer) for $50. You can also donate some money to cover the cost of installing the program at schools.

Now this is cool. Way cool.



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