Exploratory Projects Invite Serendipitous Science

Oct 29, 2013

Cows investigate a seismometer being installed as part of the U.S. Array project.
Cows investigate a seismometer being installed as part of the U.S. Array project.
Credit The IRIS Consortium

Sometimes the best science isn't planned. Opportunities arise, and scientists seize on them. The U.S. Array project is a prime example.

Actually, U.S. Array, itself, requires an enormous amount of logistical planning, not to mention funding and labor. In an effort to better understand the structure of the Earth's crust and the processes that control earthquakes and volcanoes, US Array organizers have spent the past ten years deploying hundreds of seismometers in out of the way locations across the continental United States. The initiative has generated a vast quantity of seismic data, all of it freely available.

That treasure trove hasn't gone unnoticed. Transportable array manager, Bob Busby, says scientists and students at more than 150 universities nationwide use U.S. Array instruments and data - often in ways that were completely unforeseen.

Dr. Michael Hedlin of UC San Diego’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Acoustics discovered that U.S. Array seismometers were sensitive enough to detect sub-audible vibrations in the atmosphere produced by everything from explosions to tornadoes to wind turbines. He got funding to add acoustic and pressure sensors to the transportable seismometers, and has been studying how vibrations move through both air and the ground. 

Dr. Maureen Long, now Assistant Professor in Geology and Geophysics at Yale University, has largely built her early career around U.S. Array data. The project is far too large for any one researcher - particularly one just starting out on her own - to fund or coordinate, and has allowed her to jump right into asking big questions about the geology of our continent.

"It's like Christmas every day," Long laughs. "It's better than Christmas!"

Dr. Bob Woodward compares U.S. Array to the Hubble Space Telescope, and says projects like Long's and Hedlin's are one of the benefits of exploratory science that often gets overlooked. The model of the scientific process we're all taught in school is experiments tailored to address a specific hypothesis. Woodward says there clearly were some hypotheses to be addressed by U.S. Array, but there was an additional element based on a totally different philosophy.

"We will systematically collect very high-quality data and make it completely open," says Woodward, "and curious, phenomenal science community will use that data and do things that no one ever anticipated."