We all know The Big One is coming. It could be tomorrow, it could be in 20 years, but it's coming.

Dr. Richard Allen, the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory's director, and his students have developed a smartphone app called MyShake to give advance warnings of impending earthquakes. (Berkeley Seismological Laboratory) 

Have you thought about you'd do if you had advance warning that a major earthquake was headed your way? Even if it's only a matter of seconds, there's a lot you could do in that time.

"Firefighters could open their garage doors so their fire trucks can get out," says Dr. Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and UC Berkeley's Class of 1954 Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science. "A surgeon could take a scalpel out of a patient. We could all drop, cover and hold on, and that could cut injuries in half."

And thanks to Allen and his students, we now have that advance warning. It's an app they developed called MyShake, available for iPhones and Androids. It doesn't take up much space on your phone, and it's free. Here's how it works: When an earthquake greater than 4.5 on the Richter scale strikes, seismic sensors planted in the ground all over the state pick it up and send the information to the main server, which turns around and sends a message to you. Since all of this is done electronically, it's virtually instantaneous.

But an earthquake doesn't move nearly as fast. If you were to view it from a camera in a drone, you'd be able to watch the shock waves rippling through the ground like waves on the ocean, only slower. And the further away you are from the epicenter, the more the waves will lag behind the warning.

Pretty cool, huh? But it gets better. This is still the baby version of the app. Allen and his students are busily working on the next stage, which is to turn all of us into citizen scientists, collecting real-time seismic data with our millions of smartphones that will dwarf the information coming from a few hundred buried sensors.

You know how your phone knows how to change the dimensions of the image on your screen, depending on whether it's being held vertically or horizontally? The little gizmo that does that is called an accelerator, and Allen and his crew are improving the software for it so that if the ground starts shaking beneath you, it will immediately relay that information to the server.

But what if you accidentally trip and fall? Will you automatically trigger a mass panic? No. The server is smart enough to realize that if it's only coming from one phone, it's probably not a quake, especially since you'll be surrounded by thousands of other phones that aren't reporting anything.

"It wasn't me who figured out how to do it," says Allen. "It was somebody much smarter than I am — one of my Ph.D. students, Quinkai Kong."

So says the man who was given the chair endowed by Cal's Class of 1954 specifically for "excellence in undergraduate teaching." With him, there is no difference between research and teaching. He simply brings his students into his research and lets them learn by doing.

An endowed chair comes with money, but the Class of 1954 chair also comes with a real chair — a piece of furniture created by a design class in the School of Architecture. But Allen has never sat in it because it's not for him. It's for the students who come to visit him during office hours.

Martin Snapp can be reached at catman442@comcast.net.