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Monday, August 4, 2014

Presumably, Merrimack library put the seismograph (first of its kind in NH) in the nonfiction section

David Brooks

New Hampshire’s latest addition to the ever-more-connected world of global science – a web-connected seismograph at Merrimack Public Library – is fun and educational. But is it really science?

As with all “citizen science” projects the answer is yes, sort of. ...

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New Hampshire’s latest addition to the ever-more-connected world of global science – a web-connected seismograph at Merrimack Public Library – is fun and educational. But is it really science?

As with all “citizen science” projects the answer is yes, sort of.

The fun part of the new seismograph at Merrimack Public Library is obvious.

“You go to the library and you jump and down, anybody in the world can see it,” said Alan Kafka, director of the Weston Observatory at Boston College.

The usefulness as an educational tool is also obvious.

The seismograph, protected inside a fish tank and surrounded by “please don’t touch” signs, is part of the Boston College Educational Seismology Project, which is connected to an online data network home to hundreds of similar devices at schools and libraries around the country. It is the first such site in New Hampshire, but certainly won’t be the last.

The project’s major role is to get kids interested in and knowledgeable about earth sciences. After all, what better way to break through the communication barrier known as “being a teenager” than giving insight into widespread destruction and carnage? Cool!

That is all well and good, of course, but I called Kafka because I wanted to know if the device, which costs around $700, is also useful for real science.

The answer, he said, is: Yes, sometimes.

“There was a magnitude 4 (earthquake) in Maine a few years ago, and it was beautifully recorded on the educational systems. There was lots of good value,” he said.

But like all citizen science projects, including a couple that I participate in, the Educational Seismology Project has limits imposed by user’s lack of training and by low-level equipment.

We laymen think of earthquakes as being one simple thing – a shaking of the ground – that is simple to measure, producing one number that can be placed on a zero-to-nine Richter scale. But seismology is a lot more complicated, Kafka said.

“The way a seismologist sees the world is that everything is vibrating,” he said. Things vibrate at different frequencies, and just as you can’t stick one antenna at one tuning up in the air and get all TV and radio stations, you can’t just turn on a seismograph and figure out everything that’s happening underground. They have to be tuned.

The EQ-1 Seismometer, to give it the formal name, is “Really good at really big earthquakes, up to magnitude 7 or 6,” said Kafka. “It’s not so good at moderate sized earthquakes, but it’s quite good at magnitude 3, 4.” Quakes below magnitude 3 are rarely felt at all.

The seismometer is a pretty straightforward instrument. It has a pivoting arm, 15 inches long, kept from swinging too wildly through a vane immersed in a small container of oil. At the far end of the arm is a magnet. When the arm vibrates, the movement generates an electric signal in a coil by induction.

That signal is amplified and passed to the computer to be displayed on a monitor above the seismometer, and also sent to the online network.

Even though any given measurement might be of low quality by the standards of research geology, the sum of scores of sites through Massachusetts and now New Hampshire can be valuable. That’s the whole idea behind citizen science, whether it involves collecting river samples or helping analyze online pictures of stars (Souhegan Water Association and Zooniverse.org, respectively): Making up with volume what we lack in quality.

“The seismological community, I think we’re a little bit behind astronomy, climate, other fields, in citizen science,” said Kafka. “We’re just learning how to do some of these things. There’s a lot of really great stuff out there and we’re learning how to bring it all together.”

There’s one other advantage to adding an educational component to research, Kafka said: It can pry loose funding.

“I go around begging for money for research, but it’s a very isolated audience. ... You mention education and outreach, people get excited,” he said.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).