Smartphone science

Published in Nature, 30 Mar 2016

Researchers are learning how to convert devices into global laboratories.

A decade ago, Dutch astronomer Frans Snik invented a simple optical device to measure the density of dust, soot and other particles, or aerosols, in the atmosphere that affect human health and the climate. He hoped to launch it into orbit around Earth aboard a satellite. But one afternoon in 2011, Snik held up a demonstration version of his device to an iPhone camera. The smartphone’s screen displayed a rainbow of colours: Snik’s optical device was converting incoming light into a spectrum that contained polarization information and channelling it into the camera. Snik realized that he could pair smartphones with the optical device and make the same kind of measurements that he and his colleagues planned to record from space.

An idea was born. “We thought, why not make use of a technology that millions of people carry around in their pockets anyway?” […]

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