Three iPhone science apps

By Phil Plait | March 3, 2010 8:00 am

Three iPhone apps recently came out that pertain to some favorite topics on this blog, so here’s a quick roundup of them.


1) John Cook, like me, got tired of hearing the same old long-debunked claims from global warming deniers being used over and over again, so he created an app debunking these claims. Called Skeptical Science, it divides the claims into three categories: It’s not happening, It’s not us, and It’s not bad. Under each heading are quite a few claims I’ve seen made repeatedly by the deniers, and Cook includes detailed rebuttals.

Overall I like this app, and it’s bound to be handy if you find yourself in a situation where someone is using these same claims (it’s the Sun, the hockey stick graph is flawed, Al Gore is boring, and so on). I might quibble with some of the details — for example, it talks about 1934 being the warmest year on record, but doesn’t mention that 1998, the second warmest, trails behind by a statistically insignificant 0.02 degrees. There’s more like that, but this is such a small detail it really comes down to a matter of style; an "I woulda done it different" kind of thing. The content is good and links are provided for further info.

I recommend having this one handy, so here’s the direct download link.

iphoneapp_3dsun2) Next up is a NASA app called 3D Sun. And not to trick you or anything, but it’s an app that displays the Sun in 3D. Put out by the folks behind the STEREO probes, it’s a pretty cool gizmo that reports new sunspots and aurorae, lets you look at movies of solar events like plumes, filaments, and coronal mass ejections, and gives you the latest solar news.

The best thing is the 3D Sun itself. It displays the current solar disk, and you can look at it in different wavelengths (UV shows more violent activity) and from different solar observatories. You can zoom in, out, rotate the view, and pretend you’re on a spaceship roaring past our nearby star.

Now that the Sun is finally starting to show some life again, this app is pretty useful so you know what’s the latest. Here’s the direct download link.


3) The third app is called Lunar Electric Rover, and it’s also put out by NASA. Of the three, I think this is the weakest. It’s essentially a game where you command a lunar rover to traverse the Moon to get to different goals. Now, to be fair, I’m not really partial to these kinds of games, so if they’re your thing, you may love this. I found it to be a bit slow and tedious, and the narration was stilted and difficult to hear over the background sound effects. But again, I’m not a big fan of the "go over here and do this" kinds of games. I’ll note that after I took my own notes on the app, I went to the iTunes listings and the ratings are not all that great; out of 102 ratings, 130 scored it as average or below and 62 above average or great. Lots of folks thought the same things I did.

However, I do think some younger kids will enjoy this. The graphics are quite good, and there is real information displayed and used in the game that provide lots of teachable moments. Here’s the download link.

So, do you agree, disagree? All three apps are free, so I encourage readers to grab ’em, play with ’em, and leave your own comments below!


Comments (53)

  1. Big Fat Earl

    Two science apps and one panic-sowing app, you mean. I don’t have a FruitPhone (and really, Phil, you should know better than to own anything the company makes), but does the global “warming” app (I thought the current term was “climate change”, because people pointed out that it wasn’t actually getting any warmer, but logic and environmentalism seldom go hand-in-hand.) mention that the “evidence” supporting us being the cause of any change happening in the climate being tenuous at best and fabricated at worst?

  2. I also recommend the free app “Planets“. A great astronomy app that has neat graphics and can tell you where the planets are at a given time in the sky (as well as constellations). Very handy.

  3. Mike Wagner

    You can never trust the ratings on free apps due to the nature of the app store rating system. Apple has a “wonderful” system known as rate-on-delete. Essentially the vast majority of people that rate your application are the people that didn’t like it and were asked to rate it when choosing to delete it.
    The people that like it never see the option to rate it, and if they felt so inclined would have to manually load up iTunes, find the app and then rate it.
    It’s a horrible system that destroys the rankings of any niche apps.

  4. deathmonkey

    “…out of 102 ratings, 130 scored it as average or below and 62 above average or great.”

    What are you, some kind of global warming scientist? I kid, I kid. But I think you need to massage those numbers.

  5. Blashy

    What a fantastic idea !!

  6. Speaker2a

    I may have to download Skeptical Science just to see how anyone could debunk the claim that Al Gore is boring.

  7. Morbid Florist

    Anything out there for us Androiders? ūüėČ

  8. JayMetro

    @MorbidFlorist… Tricorder for Android includes images of the Sun directly from SOHO. And it makes all the requisite sound effects for when you just have to say: “I’m scanning on all wavelengths, Captain!”

  9. Weep,

    No love for my Skeptic’s Bingo app?

    I agree that john cook did an excellent job on his app, and if he is reading this does his wife want to do the graphic design on my app? She did a great job.

    I also recently discussed skeptic apps (as opposed to science apps) here. Also had some discussion about making your own app even if you dont know how.

  10. BJN

    On my iPhone:

    Distant Suns (excellent planetarium/sky map app)

    Starmap (same type of app, also excellent)

    Moon Atlas (Moon features mapped onto a virtual sphere that you can control via touch gestures – fun, but image quality could be better)

    Mars Globe (similar concept, better image quality)

    Tasa Geologic Time Scale (basic geologic time scale with names and a smattering of significant evolutionary and geologic events)

    Geology UT and Geograph CA (by a Integrity Logic – not very complete or detailed geologic information – improving slowly but I can’t recommend these apps)

    Mild EleMints (interactive periodic table, the “mild” version is better for the casual user)

  11. Meph

    @Morbid Florist:

    There is the Google Sky Map which allows you to use your phone as a “window” to see the stars’ locations at the current time. Also shows planets, galaxies, and other cool astronomy stuff. It also has a great night mode that turns everything red, which is good for stargazing because it doesn’t ruin your night vision. The best feature, in my opinion, is the Search ability. Say I want to find the current location of Mars. I search for “Mars” and a circle with an arrow pops on the screen. I follow the arrow by moving my phone around until I’ve found Mars! Now I can move my phone out of the way and see the red planet in all it’s glory.

    Aside from that, I haven’t found any really good things. I did find a physics simulator, but it’s more of a toy/game than anything dealing with science.

  12. Space Cadet

    I have the 3D Sun App. A couple of days ago, it notified me of a “spectacular explosion” on the other side of the sun. I quickly (and excitedly) told my girlfriend about this.
    She called me a nerd and went back to watching Kardashians.
    I love this app.

  13. I second the “Planets” app mentioned by JonA! It’s nifty and actually useful. Sort of like an ultra light edition of Stellarium.

  14. Charles Boyer

    Did the Moon Rover app have a Chinese or Indian flag on it?

    They are going to be the ones going to the moon, not us.

  15. Randy A.

    “Pocket Universe” is a great app. It’s essentially a planetarium and astronomy almanac on your iPhone.

    “Darkness” tells you where the sun and moon are in the sky, and when it will be dark.

    The “APOD Viewer” is an easy way to see the astronomy picture of the day on your iPhone. I don’t use it much, because the iPhone screen is too small to do the APOD pictures justice.

    “QuakeWatch” does what it says. Right now, of courrse, most of the earthquakes listed are aftershocks to the big earthquake in Chile.

  16. Kevin

    @ 6. Morbid Florist

    Not much. I’ve been ranting on Twitter about the lack of love for the Android OS. Much less hoops to go through that Apple makes people go through. But my rants (and emails) have fallen on deaf ears.

    I even emailed the people directly who make 3DSun, and never got a reply.

    When our Android phones become sentient, and make the iPhones their menial slaves, then they’ll see who’s boss! :)

  17. Alexander Makaryk

    For us android users out there, there’s a free app called Google Sky Map that uses the phone’s accelerometer and gps to display whatever interesting celestial objects the phone is pointing at. Here is a demo video for the curious

  18. I blogged about free science apps last week ( but missed the 3D sun. Thanks!

  19. QuietDesperation

    Anything out there for us Androiders?

    Just bitter tears and the taste of ashes.

    :-) I tease.

    I have to get me one of those newfangled iPhones you kids have. I still have my Mil-Spec designed Motorola cell phone with it’s dim, monochrome text display.

    On the other hand, it still works after 8 years despite [1] bouncing down two flights of stairs and [2] being backed over by a Mini Cooper. I’m sure it could save my life by stopping a bullet someday.

  20. RoryM

    “Iapetus” is nice – it shows the continental drift at different times in the past (and one for the future)

  21. Jamey

    How about equivalents of these apps for Desktop/Laptops/Notebooks? Not all of us can afford the data plan that comes with the iPhone. Or even afford the iPhone. And yeah, editions for Android phones would be nice, too – I wonder if anyone’s thought about an Android pocket computer, without the damn cellphone parts – more like, oh, a PDA. Honestly, I don’t need to be connected 24/7 – I can load a gig or so of e-books, a couple of gigs of MP3s, and four or five little RPG & puzzle games via USB, and never need any more connection.

  22. gss_000

    IIRC the lunar rover app was purposefully made simple like you described just because it was their first foray and they didn’t want to go complicated. And if they’re targeting a younger audience, then kudos to them.

    As for the ratings, on the Apple site,, it got 3 out of 5 stars for over 600 ratings. That to me is a little more positive than Phil portrayed, but what I expected for this type of game.

    BTW, not really an app, but a new way the interested public can help NASA and science:

  23. There was an app called “Creationist Claims Index” which let you lookup claims in the Index of Creationist Claims. It was pulled down, but may show up again soon.

  24. m

    skyvoyager!! for the actual seeing of what’s up, distant suns is better, but skyvoyager has AMAZING images that will blow you away.

  25. Chris A.

    I don’t own an i(or any other sort of mobile)Phone, but a while back someone brought one into our observatory to show me a star map app they had. Problem was, it displayed the constellations in a mirror-reversed (“outside the celestial sphere, looking in”) perspective, and no amount of twiddling with the preferences would produce a view that matched the real sky’s orientation. Hard to imagine what the programmer was thinking, unless they carelessly assumed that right ascension increases in a westerly direction (“to the right,” for those of us north of the equator) instead of easterly(?). Anyway, ick. (Sorry I don’t recall the app’s name.)

  26. Katie

    3D sun is a great app! I really recommend Distant Suns Lite, it’s free planetarium software. Oh, and Moon Globe and Planets, also free ūüėÄ

  27. jcm

    I wish I owned an iPhone.

  28. 24601

    I’d love to know where there’s a non-iphone version of that sun app.

  29. How does one turn a web page into an iPhone app? I am seeing some potential here for Facts, not Fantasy (or antiantivax as the case may be).

  30. MarcS

    Not trying to start a phone war, but Google Sky Map on the Droid is way cool.

  31. fos

    The first app should have an asterisk after it indicating that it is for selective skeptics. Those few “main stream scientists” that are like the flat Earthers of years ago. They just can’t believe that the Global Warming cabal was rife with corruption and collusion. A small number of scientists that did their own peer reviews and did everything they could to prevent differing views from being published. Even NOAA and NASA have selectively shut down “remote” weather stations that weren’t in urban areas that would skew the temp data in favor of global warming.

    There is global warming. We are in an inter glacial period. It is not and never has been the Earth destroying crisis that the “politician” Owl Gore has been hawking to make him millions.

    The Earth warms, the Earth cools. Try taking an intro hitorical geology course sometime.

  32. @fos

    Don’t you mean “hypocritcal geology”?

    (I keed, I keed!)

    Everything about your comment reeks of classic denialism. You could be 100% correct when it comes to your ultimate position, and your statement would still be riddled with problematic assertions. A “cabal”? Collusion? “Owl Gore” making millions?

    Your main problem: Ascribing moral character to claims. This is a common mistake- people can be both evil and right. Also, and I will say this again and again until it enters people’s skull’s like an ax through a watermelon:

    The Internet and Global Warming have something in common: Neither was invented by Al Gore. I automatically assume people who make this assertion have not so much as opened the Wikipedia page on global warming, since a cursory glance reveals that the hypothesis was put first forward by Svante Arrhenius back before color photos.

  33. Steve in Dublin

    fos @22

    Yeah, it’s all just in our collective imaginations that mankind currently pumps 26 giga-tons of CO2, a known greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere every year. And doing that couldn’t possibly have any effect whatsoever on global heat retention, right?

  34. @ 6. Morbid Florist and @ 13. Kevin – Google Sky Map rocks my G1 world, but I have to resist squealing like a schoolgirl every time I use Tricorder. The SOL view has images downloaded from SOHO, plus “information on the state of the Sun and solar wind.” Both are on the Android market.

  35. Miko

    “It’s not bad” (and “it is bad”) are value judgments, not scientific judgments.

  36. Big Fat Earl (#1): You can deny global warming all you want, but that doesn’t give you the right to break my one commenting rule. I suggest you familiarize yourself with it. Especially the last paragraph, as it applies perfectly to what you wrote.


  37. Danno

    Yet again, Blackberry users are ignored. sigh…

  38. Old Muley

    #32. The Chemist Says: “The Internet and Global Warming have something in common: Neither was invented by Al Gore.”

    According to Futurama, Al Gore is the inventor of the environment, and first emperor of the moon. He has also ridden the mighty moon worm!

    Back to the topic at hand, I like GoSatWatch, NASA in addition to 3D sun and planets.

  39. Marcus

    Before someone gets confused… Phil, could you edit the “1934” comment to note that it refers to 1934 _in the U.S._ using one historical dataset? There’s enough confusion out there about “1934” being the warmest year globally already with potentially adding more…

  40. Marcus

    ps. Note that the “IPCC”, created almost 2 decades ago, was named “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” and not “the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Warming” despite the fairly evident warming at the time (and continued warming), because “climate change” more accurately depicts the multitude of changes that comes along with warming.

    Sadly, skeptics have also pushed the “climate change” terminology in the past because it sounds less threatening than “global warming” – and then turned around several years later and ascribed false motives to the change.

  41. Gary Ansorge

    We need a PHONE for these apps? Bummer! It took me 20 years to get a decent computer and now I have to get a smart phone.

    Whatever happened to land lines?

    Cool apps but does the lunar rover have a built in 2.5 second delay?

    Gary 7

  42. Geophysicist

    Not a fan of the skeptical science app. I looked at it to see the answer to what seems to me to be the “elephant in the room” of the lack of tropospheric “hot spot” over the tropics predicted by modelling as reported by the IPCC. The app’s answer is basically: Correct no tropical hot spot has been observed, but the model is accurate everywhere else, so it’s probably bad data over the tropics.

    Now to me as a scientist, If someone makes a hypothesis with predictable and therefore falsifiable implications; then undertakes detailed observations and measurements in the real world which do not support said hypothesis; I always get a little wary when they go on to say “Well, my hypothesis is still right, it’s just the observed data that’s wrong.”

    Sure the observations might be poor quality, but should I be tarred with the brush of “denialism”? or is it fair to remain skeptical…

  43. I agree that John’s App is great. He does an excellent job of blowing the silly skeptic arguments out of the water.
    My patience with that silliness is quite limited. I often refer viewers to his site. Especially when I get one of the usual emails that mention Al Gore in the first sentence, and then repeat what they have read on one of these hoax websites.

  44. Mike V


    Google Sky Map – The best astronomy app. Has been mentioned above.

    Celeste – Similar to Google Sky Map but shows the location of the planets, Moon, and Sun superimposed over your camera’s current image.

    Earthquake! – Notifies of earthquakes based on a user-defined magnitude threshold. Also able to notify of local quakes at a much lower threshold.

    GPS Status – Raw info about location and orientation based on internal sensors and GPS

    Iridium Flares – Shows upcoming flares based on current location

  45. Jya Jya Binks Killer

    STEREO probes are cool and all but when do we start getting the data & pictures in from the Solar Dynamics Observatory? Will that be made into an app too?

  46. Charles Boyer

    I am beginning to think Droid users have a lot of Mac or Linux-like fanbois.

    Compare the numbers of the user bases between Droid and iPhone and it is as easy to see why apps go to the iPhone first as it is to see why apps are written for Windows before other platforms. That’s just Econ 101.

    Besides, HTC has a nice little lawsuit from Apple for violating their patents with their Droid phone, and it looks like Apple is totally uninterested in licensing. Some say they may seek to brick all HTC Droid phones if they win the suit.

  47. Scott Evans

    Another sad android user here, love my phone, but hate all of the science apps are for iphone, well not all there is a ‘christian healing’ and a ‘science of fairies’ app in our marketplace…so all is not lost…./sarcasm…

  48. To those who wish to “debunk” the Skeptical Science app before looking at it, your work is cut out for you. John Cook’s site has collected a vast amount of peer-reviewed science (despite Climategate & the Himalayan glaciers over-inflaters claims to the contrary, there’s LOTS of peer-reviewed science) to refute your claims. You won’t find “I just don’t understand point X, therefore climate change isn’t real” type arguments there. :) Of course, if you dismiss it outright without looking at it, you betray your position as an outright denier (Big Fat Earl).

  49. Big Fat Earl

    I don’t need to “dismiss it outright” when common sense and reality provide so much evidence (like, I don’t know, the entire geologic record, for one thing) that doesn’t support man-made climate change. What you call being a “denier” is known to those of us who live in reality as “looking at things objectively”.

  50. Kat

    Re: Big Fat Earl…

    “common” sense vs. science

    I think I’ll take the science, please.

  51. Tom

    I’ve just released a free Android application called Solaris that displays STEREO extreme ultraviolet solar imagery on a 3D sphere. You can download Solaris for free at the Android Market. This is a “beta” version, with new features coming soon. All suggestions appreciated!

  52. The Skeptical Science app now comes in Android flavour!

    So for those Droid dudes ( I’m talking to Morbid Florist, Mark S and V ) – enjoy.

  53. Ccu

    Lots of great apps here, thanks. The ‘lapetus’ app sounds great but I can’t find it. Any ideas?


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