13 awesome science apps to express your inner nerd

From geology to astronomy to meteorology to botany, these apps turn your phone into a virtual tricorder.

Because SCIENCE!

A thirst for knowledge: Check. A solid understanding of the scientific method: Check. A full-blown lab: Ruh-roh! But fear not, aspiring scientists—solving nature’s great mysteries no longer requires access to a full supply of beakers, Bunsen burners, and petri dishes. The fact is, between the hefty processors and myriad sensors built into today’s technology, your humble smartphone can help you collect all the data you need to test a tricky hypothesis or otherwise further your scientific endeavors.

Whether you’re camping under dark skies or touring rocky canyons, we’ve found more than a dozen stellar science apps to fuel your inner astronomer, geologist, meteorologist, or naturalist. Some of the apps are a little rough around the edges—hey, science is about experimentation, after all—but their geeky cool factor more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Geology Sample Collector

Works on: Android

What it is: Geology notebook

What it does: This ad-supported app is designed for serious and casual geologists alike. Geology Sample Collector lets you record virtually everything about your rocky finds, offering support for voice recordings, videos, photos, temperature readings, time stamps, notes, and GPS data.

Not good enough? The app also includes a digital theodolite to measure height, distance, angles, and planes. When you’ve finished your project, the app uploads and backs up all your data to, where you can easily display it on a Google Map. Mineral buffs won’t find much to hate here.


Works on: Android

What it is: Mobile weather station, citizen science project

What it does: From the makers of the OpenSignal wireless-testing app, WeatherSignal is a citizen science project that uses your phone’s sensors to measure weather conditions, such as temperature (experimental), pressure, light intensity, and magnetic flux. If you have a Samsung Galaxy S4, the app can even measure humidity!

You can upload all the data you collect to an online map and add it to a database of weather conditions around the world. Beyond merely providing info about current conditions, the app’s creators one day hope to turn the amassed weather data into a research database.


Works on: Android, iOS, and mobile Web browsers

What it is: Virtual seismometer

What it does: Watch the Earth move under your feet and measure how big the impact is with this app. While real seismometers serve to measure tectonic shifts, iSeismometer is mostly for fun. You can use it to observe how sound vibrations from your stereo speakers register on the device, or set your phone on a table and shake away. This app could also come in handy for anyone involved in a school science project.

ISS Detector

Works on: Android

What it is: Astronomy navigation tool

What it does: ISS Detector shows you when the International Space Station will pass over your terrestrial location, and also lists good times to view flares from passing Iridium satellites. The app includes information about weather and viewing conditions, as well as each object’s orbital path. You can arrange to get notifications up to one hour before the next sighting, too.

ISS fans should also check out NASA’s ISSLive, where you can find live streaming data from missions, crew profiles and activities, and location details about the ISS.

Sky Map

Works on: Android

What it is: Astronomy navigation tool

What it does: Originally a Google project, Sky Map is a simple, useful tool for backyard astronomers to find their favorite constellations, planets, and deep-sky objects such as nebulae and open clusters. You can find more complex astronomy apps for Android and iOS, but if you just want a no-nonsense app that offers a clear way to navigate the nighttime skies, Sky Map is a great choice.

Sonar Ruler

Works on: iOS

What it is: Ruler for short distances

What it does: A contender for the title of the coolest science app ever, the $1 Sonar Ruler is exactly what it sounds like. The app measures the distance to a wall or other object by emitting a short sound burst and then calculating how long the echo takes to bounce back. The app’s description says that it can measure distances up to 60 feet, but Sonar Ruler is an experimental app, so your results may vary.


Works on: iOS

What it is: Tree catalog

What it does: Another supercool science app, Leafsnap—from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution—helps you identify tree species simply by snapping a picture of its leaves. For it to work properly, you have to take a picture of the leaf against a white background. (Read: a blank sheet of paper.)

Reviews for the app are a mix of wonder and disappointment, and part of the reason may be that Leafsnap is focusing on the trees of the northeastern United States for now. Nevertheless, when it does work, using Leafsnap is like having your own tricorder—or at least the closest we can get with today’s consumer technology.

Smart Tools

Works on: Android

What it is: A collection of handy tools

What it does: This $2.50 app package features five apps, including a smart ruler to measure object lengths right on your screen, a tool to estimate height using triangulation, a sound-level meter, a compass, a protractor, and a flashlight. There’s even a metal detector and a scale, although these features didn’t work well for us on a Nexus 4. Even so, science without measurements isn’t science at all, and this app will fill a crucial role in every budding Bill Nye’s digital toolkit.


Works on: Android, iOS

What it is: Nature lover’s social network

What it does: iNaturalist is one part naturalist observation notebook and one part social network. The app lets you record any interesting plant life and animals you see during hikes or other nature-infused trips, and each observation can include a short note, a photograph, and GPS coordinates.

Want to walk in the footsteps of trailblazers? You can also sign in with your Facebook or Google account to follow other iNaturalist users, or check out the map feature to view observations from other users nearby. Note that the app’s social features themselves leave a lot to be desired—they offer no easy way to follow people on your phone—so you’ll have turn to on the Web to get your social feed started.

Loss of the Night

Works on: Android

What it is: Citizen science project

What it does: Loss of the Night is a simple citizen science project intended to measure the extent of light pollution throughout the world. You contribute by firing up the app at night and letting it guide you on a tour of the stars. The app then asks you whether you can see the star it’s directing you to. Your results are uploaded to a database that researchers can use to assess the effects of light pollution on the environment and on human health. Loss of the Night is supported by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research.


Works on: Android, iOS

What it is: Reference app

What it does: No backyard scientist’s toolkit would be complete without the amazing resource of WolframAlpha, an app well worth its $3 admission fee. Need to look up details about gold on the periodic table of elements? Check. Want to find out where Arcturus will be in the sky tonight? Check. Need to know which regions of North America have Douglas fir? Che…well, you get the idea.

Gravity Launch

Works on: Android, iOS

What it is: Game

What it does: Sometimes even the most intrepid scientist needs a game break. Gravity Launch teaches you about the basic concepts of gravity and inertia involved in spaceflight. The game presents you with tasks of varying difficulty, such as blasting into orbit around Earth, landing on the moon, and docking with the International Space Station. You can play alone or go head-to-head with your rocket-scientist friends—but don’t expect Xbox-level graphics.


Works on: Android

What it is: Number-crunching CPU vampire

What it does: Although BOINC—aka the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing—can’t help you in your firsthand scientific endeavors, it can transform your phone into a tool for scientists who need an assist in crunching data on big problems. The app employs your phone’s unused computing resources to run jobs for research projects of your choosing, allowing your idle device to help study diseases, predict global warming, or discover pulsars in deep space.

Fear not: Strict usage settings keep BOINC from sapping your smartphone’s juice. Read all about this distributed-computing app on TechHive.

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