Say the word “seismograph,” and many minds go directly to the image of a machine scribbling out ink lines to trace the shaking of an earthquake. Seismology has always been a profession especially known for its tools, even though the field has moved far from the stylus and drum recorder.
Adam Pascale, chief technology officer at the Seismology Research Centre (SRC) in Richmond, Australia, carries on that tradition in his work guiding the development of new instruments and electronics from SRC. One of the main challenges of his work, he says, has been to develop user-friendly instruments. “Too often instruments are designed for high-tech users, so the casual user or student often finds equipment difficult to use, possibly resulting in poor quality data or loss of data. Creating something that is practically plug-and-play and intuitive to use is not easy.”
For Pascale, this means working on products such as seismic data recorders and earthquake waveform viewing software that are intuitive to students and experts alike, with easy-to-use web interfaces and seismographs with LCD screens and keyboards built in. “A quote by Apple product designer Johnathan Ive that stuck with me through the seismograph design process was: ‘We try to develop products that seem somehow inevitable, that leave you with the sense that that’s the only possible solution that makes sense,’” he says. “I know we’re not making mass market products like the iPhone, but you can still apply the same principles to any product, and why not also make it compact and beautiful to look at?”
Pascale and his colleagues tinker with instrumentation and software features, especially regarding data and processing, based on feedback from the seismological community as they take SRC products into the field. “I think social media is an important tool for communicating with the next generation of seismologists, so I’ve posted a few surveys on our Twitter feed to encourage people give us feedback about what they want,” he says
As a five-year old, Pascale lived in a house just 800 meters from the first earthquake recorded in metropolitan Melbourne by SRC. He remembers his parents talking about the magnitude 1.4 quake, and jokes that it was the event that set him on the path to his current career. “But the reality was that when I finished my university course, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “So to help out a fellow tutorial supervisor I took on some work over the holidays in the earthquake lab in the basement of the university building, and things just grew from there.”
Pascale received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from RMIT University, following an “instrumentation” stream that focused on computer control of mechanical systems and software programming. He went to work for SRC after graduation and has been with the center for more than 26 years. (SRC was part of RMIT University until 1998, before becoming part of the ESS Earth Sciences company.)
Along with instrumentation development and technical support, Pascale also creates proposals for seismic monitoring systems to solve specific problems for their customers. Usually this is a matter of designing an earthquake monitoring network that can “provide the best detection and coverage given the limitation of land access and budgets,” he says. But sometimes the proposals take a turn away from earthquakes.
“One of the most interesting projects was using seismographs to determine the impact location of scramjet rockets that were being tested in outback Australia. The rockets could be tracked by radar at altitude, but they were lost as they approached the horizon, so the final resting location was always unclear and the rocket components were not previously recovered,” Pascale explains. “By using our seismographs they were able to see the impact around the expected time, and after creating a velocity model to suit the data, the scientists were able to locate the ‘rocket-quake’ and recover hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of reusable equipment.”
He wishes he has more time for installing and operating microseismic networks—“actually getting out in the field, collecting data and analyzing events,” Pascale says. “Creating rich data sets allows you to look at data in different ways, which inspires new analysis techniques. I’m sure that one day we’ll come up with a novel way of visualizing data that might get us closer to understanding earthquakes enough to be able to reduce their negative impact on humanity.”
SSA At Work is a monthly column that follows the careers of SSA members. For the full list of issues, head to our At Work page.