My Top 5 Mobile Apps for Scientists

16Feb12

So Labguru recently had a blog post entitled 5 Best Mobile Apps for Research Scientists. It’s a decent list, though it’s actually the four best, since your brand new iPad app isn’t something I’m sure you can actually count in an impartial list, though it does look cool.

It’s actually a better list than most. I find myself getting irked when “Science” is taken to invariably mean either “Physics” or more commonly in life science blogs and the like I read, wet-lab biology/biochemistry. What about us poor theorists? Or population-level empiricists? Do we really need a list dominated by timers to make sure you take your samples out of the water bath in time?

After the jump are my Top 5 apps, hopefully not terribly biased toward my own research. And absolutely not featuring my own (nonexistent) app.


For the record, there aren’t in any particular order.

#1: Dropbox. Dropbox is seriously amazing. It’s essentially a shared, virtual drive sitting out in cyberspace, accessible from your desktop, another computer if you need it, your iPad, iPhone, Android devices, the internet…and sync’d between them all. It’s essentially replaced flash drives for me, which are both unreliable and prone to wander. It’s got a second copy of all my important files. I have it automatically set to be symbolically linked with certain work folders on my desktop so anything I put in those folders will be automatically added to Dropbox – and any files I make on my iPad will show up on my desktop as well. And it’s free for students, and they give you a little extra space (and double the bonus space for referrals).

#2: Papers. This one started as a Mac-only app, but has migrated to iOS, and now it’s on Windows as well. It’s the single most pleasant “paper repository” software I’ve ever used. The citation manager features don’t quite seem ready for primetime (I tried it with my proposal and they required some editing), but in terms of organizing your papers, keeping PDF files corralled, sharing and searching them? Second to none. And with the iOS application, you can keep your libraries sync’d, so as long as you have your phone or iPad, you’re never without that one paper you really need.

#3. iSSH. iSSH may be the data science equivalent of the “time your experiments” app for the wet-lab folks. Simply put, its an easy to use, remarkably clean SSH terminal application for your iPad/iPhone. Which means if you’ve got a PC set up at home that you can SSH into, or access to the friendly local university cluster, etc. you can do it from an amazingly portable device. It extends the capabilities of the iPad and keyboard combination massively – you can now program in R, maraud around Python, even compile and run C applications remotely. Or remotely administer a server. Or check on a long-running job to see if you can come back from your coffee break.

My most dubious use of it was when the East Coast got hit by the earthquake/hurricane combination and I was out of town, SSHing into my machine and assuming that if I could still connect, the damage couldn’t be that bad. I’ve also done far more productive things on it.

#4. Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram Alpha is just a general purpose utility “I don’t know something and I need to” program. Like Google, except it knows you’re using this for science. A search for “Clostridium” gives me the taxonomy of that genus. And other related members of the family. And members of that genus. And its taxonomic network. And it shows its sources.

“San Francisco” gets you a map. The current local time. And weather. And weather history. And the cost of living index, and median home price and unemployment rate and nearby airports and hospitals, etc. etc.

“Odds Ratio” gets you the formula for…you guessed it. And a quick calculator.

“Ethanol” gives you the formula, compound formula and structure diagram for ethanol. And the molecular weight, melting point, boiling point, density, solubility…are we getting the idea?

It’ll even do math for you. Math that’s way more complicated than most calculator programs.

#5. Some Sort of Text Editor. This is a matter of personal preference. I’ve got a copy of Pages, Apple’s word processing app, and while it’s powerful, there continue to be issues hopping back and forth between Pages and Word when you have EndNote citations, and it proved to be more trouble than it’s worth. But some people will want clear, plain, “White screen, cursor, and my words” UIs, while others will prefer some of the more familiar text editor features.

Personally, I use “Textastic“, which has word and character counts, syntax highlighting for programming languages, and can either send files via email or (among other destinations) save directly to DropBox.

So there you have it. My top 5 must have iPad/iPhone apps.

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