The 5 Most Mind-Blowingly Huge Machines Built By Science
Although it seems that modern technology is all about making everything smaller, when it comes to unlocking the secrets of the universe, science is all about going big. Really big. Right at this moment, scientists and engineers are in the process of building -- or using -- instruments that look like the engine for a Star Destroyer.
The Death-Star-Sized Laser at the National Ignition Facility
The competition to create the world's biggest laser sounds in every way like a duel between competing supervillains, with names like "The Omega Laser" and "The Z Machine." But don't worry. After all, would a supervillain build something that looks like this?
This thing has three giant shark tanks and no bathrooms.
Yeah, that's the Department of Energy's National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California. It's three football fields' worth of deadly laser force, and the components are all terrifyingly huge. Here, let's play a game of "find the tiny workers among these pictures of giant laser parts."
It's like Where's Waldo? for the Ivy League set.
So what does all of that stuff do? Well, in 5 millionths of a second, the NIF can charge and deliver 192 beams of laser love capable of generating temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius, and pressures greater than 100 billion times that of the Earth's atmosphere.
What could possibly be the purpose of such a thing, short of carving your name onto the face of the moon? Actually, scientists are trying to create nuclear fusion, the Holy Grail of energy technology. It's literally the energy source that powers the sun, and to make it happen, they're going to unload the full force of laser fury into a packet of hydrogen the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence.
In other words, the NIF is here to bust a nut.
As an added bonus, by recreating the extreme conditions of the core of the sun, the NIF can help us understand what kind of crazy crap happens inside stars and supernovas, which is convenient because we can't really test either of those things in the field.
It's at this point that scientists turn to steampunk.
IceCube -- the 1.5-Mile-Tall Polar Neutrino Observatory
There is a telescope more than 7,000 feet tall, made up of over 5,000 sensors dangling from a gigantic array of cables. It exists, right now, and we can't show you a picture of it.
Why? Well, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory has been designed to detect a very specific kind of light. To do this, it needs to be dark. And we mean dark, as in, "so dark that they had to bury the instrument more than a mile and a half underneath Antarctica" dark. It's so far down that scientists actually measure the distance in skyscrapers.
That's 394 T-rexes in Cracked-speak.
What IceCube is searching for is actually one of the smallest objects in the universe -- the neutrino. A neutrino is so tiny that it can pass through a block of lead one light-year thick as though it were empty space. That means that even though 65 billion of them are passing through each square centimeter of Earth every second, the vast majority of them don't even notice they just flew through a planet.
Scientists first tried using the densest material on Earth to capture a neutrino, but they didn't have David Stern's brain handy.
Every so often, though, a neutrino will collide with an atom. This is kind of like hitting a mosquito with a bullet, but given enough bullets and enough time, it happens eventually. That's where IceCube comes in. When a neutrino does hit something, it makes a tiny spark of light. Five skyscrapers deep under the Antarctic ice is the only place in the world dark enough and yet clear enough to see these collisions occurring.
That's if the Morlocks don't get you first.
Why do scientists care so much? Well, by studying neutrinos, apparently we can discover all sorts of freaky new crap in the universe, from dark matter, to supernovas, to extra dimensions. Or, just maybe, The Thing.
The 5 Miles of Laser at LIGO
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory is a device in Washington that shoots laser beams through two tubes, which sounds boring until you realize the tubes are each about 2.5 miles long, and their purpose is to detect ripples in the fabric of space-time.
Yeah, clearly something from another dimension is going to come crawling out of there.
You just know there's a Shoggoth caged somewhere in the middle.
Einstein theorized that space and time were made of a kind of fabric that wobbles and distorts like ripples in a pond, and that's what gravity is -- you're literally falling into a space ripple. When you make a really huge explosion, according to Einstein's theory, space and time actually do what a lake does when you go dynamite fishing -- it splashes. In Einsteinian terms, the kinds of explosions we're talking about are like when two stars smack into each other, or a galaxy explodes.
LIGO's mission is to test Einstein's theory by looking for the space ripples that should occur after one of these cataclysmic events. By building a laser big enough to destroy the galaxy.
Russia pipes oil. The U.S. pipes the end of all existence.
Ha, no, not really. These lasers are actually set up to detect the ripples when such cataclysms occur elsewhere. Under normal conditions, the two lasers are exactly the same length. And we mean exactly. But when space-time starts getting all wobbly due to some cosmic event or other, it messes with the distance between two points -- one laser literally gets shorter or longer than the other, though only by a millionth of the diameter of a hydrogen atom over the full 2.5 miles (that's not much).
It hasn't actually detected any of these waves yet, but that may mean they just need a bigger laser. If they can only find the funding, NASA is hoping one day to launch LIGO's big sister LISA -- a version of the same thing, but in space, with lasers three million miles long.
Which is approximately this much in wibbly space lines.
The James Webb Space Telescope Will Dwarf Hubble
The Hubble Space Telescope has been cramming the enormity and beauty of the universe down our throats for over 20 years now. But science just isn't satisfied. That's why, in 2014, they're shutting down the Hubble and replacing it with the obscenely powerful James Webb Space Telescope.
Honeycomb's big ... yeah yeah yeah!
When the Webb launches, hopefully in 2018, it will travel a million miles away from the Earth before settling into orbit. Like a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon, the Webb will spread all five layers of its tennis-court-sized solar shield and start forcing the magnificence of the cosmos into our brains through our eye holes.
Its primary mirror, with a diameter of 21.3 feet, is 2.7 times as wide as Hubble's and has six times the area. The reason for this is that the Hubble has just about reached its capacity for how far it can see into the abyss -- as the universe expands, the light from the farthest objects is reduced to a faint trickle of infrared light that the Hubble isn't sensitive enough to pick up.
Its girth can penetrate the depths of space better, is what we're saying.
The James Webb will be able to see light sources 10 to 100 times fainter than Hubble. It will look far into the past to study light from the first stars and galaxies formed just after the Big Bang, as well as check the chemical makeup of Earthlike planets. But mostly it's just going to mess with our sense of worth.
The day we find out we're the least important things in the universe will be the day science wins.
The Large Hadron Collider
We know, you've heard about this before, if only because of all the speculation that it's going to destroy the world. But do you actually know what it does, beyond simply "science?" Do you even know what the hell a hadron is? Did you know the LHC is the largest machine ever built by humans?
With help from the spider god Atlach-Nacha.
Many of the big mysteries we're still trying to solve about the universe are locked up inside tiny particles like protons (one example of a hadron), which are themselves made up of even tinier particles. To detect them, the LHC needs parts like this:
We believe it's called a widget.
That's a component of one of the particle detectors at the LHC. It's 5 stories tall and weighs 6 million pounds. To find the particles for that thing to detect, we have to smash up the protons. Unfortunately, this is like trying to get the cash out of an adamantium piggy bank. You have to smash them really, really hard.
So the Large Hadron Collider, as its name implies, has two main functions: Smashing protons together, and being really big. In order to get a proton up to the speed required to actually break it apart, scientists have to fire it through a circular tube 17 miles in length. This boosts the particle to an energy level of 3.5 tera-electron volts (TeV), or around the energy of a mosquito. That may not sound impressive until you realize a proton is trillions of times smaller than a mosquito, so it's really like shooting a spitball with the force of Halley's Comet.
This is the physics version of those rotating barrels you get at funfairs.
The purpose of this gargantuan machine is basically to prove the existence of particles that should exist in theory, but we've never actually seen. Stuff with really weird names, like dark matter, monopoles and Higgs bosons. Basically, it's the Mad Hatter's Tea Party of physics.
And doing that, as with all worthwhile projects, requires one giant goddamned machine.
Basically, the LHC is how science plans to find the universe's clitoris.
For scientific badassery, check out The 6 Most Badass Stunts Ever Pulled in the Name of Science and 5 Superpowers Science Will Give Us in Our Lifetime.