Grounded

By Judith Green

Joe Gerencher adjusts one of the three seismometers in the sub-basement of Collier Hall.

In the basement of Collier Hall of Science, something earth-shaking is going on.

In real time, too.

Or, as the scientifically cautious Physics and Earth Science Department website puts it, “in near-real-time,” as though any layperson could tell the difference.

You can see it on computer monitors along one wall of the lab of Joseph J. Gerencher Jr., professor of earth science. The jagged lines on the screens are the contrails of actual seismic events, recorded as they occur and translated simultaneously to other monitors in his network, which extends over the Internet to any location in the world. Anyone can pick them up from the Internet by logging in at www.physics.moravian.edu/seismic, then downloading and running the “client” software.

Joe Gerencher began his earthquake monitoring project—its formal name is SIMA, which stands for Seismic Internet Monitoring Application—in the late ’80s, with the help of software written for the now-antiquated Apple IIe by student Ron Jackson ’89, who created it as an independent study project. Ron is now a self-employed computer contractor in the Lehigh Valley.

The equipment, as Joe cheerfully describes it, is “not of research quality.” He made his first seismometer, which is still at work in the lab, from such unscientific materials as a guitar string, a couple of common C-clamps, a turnbuckle, plumber’s pipe, thin copper wire—nothing that could not have been purchased at Radio Shack and a local hardware store for about $100. The most difficult part, he says, was winding the copper wire the necessary 12,000 times to create a coil.

In the 15 years since, Joe has added two other homemade seismometers and a Teledyne commercial seismometer to his original network and built a separate network of seismometers to monitor a different kind of earthquake wave. Even the Teledyne was acquired as frugally as possible (on eBay). Additional commercial seismometers, bought at computer flea markets, will soon expand these networks.

All this time, some of the instruments have been using Ron’s software. “Ron’s code works 24/365,” Joe says. “It never fails. It never stops. It’s still running.” Joe and Ron published the project in the September 1991 issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education.
Except for the two in his lab, Joe has set up the seismometers in the sub-basement beneath the ground floor. To see them, you climb down a metal ladder (which makes you think of Das Boot). At the bottom, you turn carefully around in a space about the size of a custodial closet. Then you fall to your knees, because a whole gallery of plumbing pipes and heating and air-conditioning ducts (looking like the Microsoft Windows “3D Pipes” screen-saver that scientists love to use) fills almost all the available headroom. And besides, the seismometers are on the floor.

They’re down here because this is as close as Joe can get them to bedrock. And, together with those upstairs, they monitor seismic signals from all points of the compass.

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Above, some of the globes in the earth science lab. Below, Joe is flanked by Michael Sands '02 and Ron Jackson '89, who have collaborated with him on SIMA.

All Photos: John Kish IV