Say Hello to sci-Phone

Reviews / by Greg Boustead /

The top 10 science applications for the iPhone.

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Cartoon illustration from xkcd.com

The scientific community has always been quick to pick up new technology; novel ways of accessing, sharing, and organizing information have a history of changing how science is done. An important effect of the gizmo-humping tendency toward technolust is a redefinition of the way society interacts with science. One mobile platform in particular is feeding our burgeoning appetite for insight and exploration: Apple’s iPhone.

The elegant slab of optical-grade glass and beveled plastic is making “science on the go” an edifying, cool, useful, and contextually pleasing experience. With the recent release of more than 500 (and counting) third-party applications for the iPhone in conjunction with the company’s second-generation 3G handset and 2.0 firmware, we list 10 essential applications for working scientists, casual science enthusiasts, and all of us in between, in no particular order. We also indulge our fantasies a bit by suggesting features that we think should exist.

TOP 10
The best of the current iPhone app offerings

(1) Molecules
By: Sunset Lake Software
Cost: Free

IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND: “Artificial DNA,” sort of. Enter the four-digit Protein Data Base code for any molecule, and Molecules renders its three-dimensional structure as a rotating, zoomable model. Slick! Manipulating the molecule structure with multitouch feels especially intuitive, and the graphic panning is smooth. A flip menu provides a list of your stored proteins with additional information, such as the molecule’s discoverers, sequence, source, and where the protein was originally published.
ADDS WE’D LIKE: Line- and ribbon-structure rendering; the ability to upload personal structure files; better detail and highlighting of individual chains or residues.

(2) Starmap
By: Frédéric Descamps
Cost: $11.99

IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND: An ostensible planetarium. Starmap provides a fully portable way of locating things—stars, planets, constellations, meteor showers, deep-field objects—in the night sky. You can calibrate your location (either with city, longitude/laditude coordinates, or by using iPhone’s triangulation) and toggle through north-, east-, south-, and west-view sky charts. It allows for customized ambient and star- brightness levels to correct for time of night and light pollution. A flip-dock on the bottom of the screen houses all the catalog lists of the sky objects, and a navigation arrow guides you to your point of interest.
ADDS WE’D LIKE: Inclusion of more visible objects, such as artificial satellites; more data for each entry (i.e., for stars: spectrum/temperature/mass, star type, distance from Earth, any known exoplanets, etc.). From Seed‘s pie-in-the-sky wish-list department, incorporation of J. Richard Gott, Mario Juric, et al.‘s “Map of the Universe”—a conformal map with recent deep-space discoveries, such as Kuiper belt objects and galaxies and quasars from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, based on a logarithmic model of the complex plane—would be an inspired addition.

(3) Genetic Decoder
By: University of Nottingham
Cost: Free

IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND: A quick RNA-to-amino-acid decoder, cute and easy. This web-based app spits out amino-acid information (name, type, structure, codons, and other data) for any RNA codon entered into its nifty tap-touch toggle field. Great for students.
ADDS WE’D LIKE: Native application operability!

(4) Jott
By: Jott Networks
Cost: Free

IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND: A personal note transcriber. Jott is a clever little application that converts any speech (spoken into your handset) into text. It stores these transcribed notes in folders and allows the user to edit and reorganize them; there’s even a feature to email them to oneself. Although not a science application per se, the tool holds massive potential for scientists, as well as wonderers of the world in general. Very often, flashes of inspiration or formulations of critical questions occur when we least expect them: while taking the long way home; in the wee hours when our minds occupy that magical space between dreams and waking life; in the bathroom. It’s not always convenient to put pen to paper when the rush of creativity flows in rapid, unpredictable bursts. Pick up your phone; talk it out. The notes will be there for you to crystallize for the Nobel committee later.
ADDS WE’D LIKE: Faster transcription: During our testing, processing of recorded notes lagged when being relayed to the server. The ability to upload personal dictionaries of oft-used technical terminology and proper nouns, with two-way program-recognition memory for new terms that are corrected later in notes.

(5) MIM
By: MIMvista
Cost: Free

IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND: Body Worlds on your phone. As the manufacturer says, MIM for your iPhone provides “multiplanar reconstruction of datasets from modalities including CT, PET, MRI, and SPECT, as well as multimodality image fusion.” In brief: Explore 3-D models of the human body. The fusion volume merges several layers of imaging to spectacular effect; the interface here is impressive. Spinning, flipping, and tweaking through the sample datasets is an engaging experience. From a practical perspective, this application offers physicians and patients a portable way to access and navigate real-case medical scans. This is just the type of envelope-pushing approach we love.
ADDS WE’D LIKE: A nonproprietary method of uploading datasets (currently only practitioners with MIM workstations can add patient scans). Ideally, future releases should refine the accuracy to diagnostic quality. “Tricoders” for the medical community of the future. Yeah.

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