Amusement parks are so bland. This summer, take a brainier vacation— visit a particle accelerator, sail the Pacific aboard a marine research vessel, or watch simulations of epic natural disasters.
Dig for Dinosaurs
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Various Locations
The tectonic forces that raised the Rocky Mountains also buried and preserved many dinosaurs. This makes the American West a playground for today's fossil-hunters. The Field Paleo program at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology's Museum of Geology runs several digs and welcomes visitors to participate in trips of four to 11 days. Options include hunting for Ice Age fossils in Oregon, stegosauruses in Wyoming, and marine reptiles along the Missouri River in South Dakota. Working with paleontologists, you'll learn dinosaur classification and anatomy, and map and preserve your findings.
Trip tip: If you want to look for fossils in other areas, head to pasthorizons.com for more digs around the world.
Info: Trips run May to July; $600–$1,500; South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
Watch Disasters Happen (Safely)
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif.
At Lawrence Livermore's National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center, scientists use sophisticated computer-modeling techniques to predict and plan for nuclear, chemical or biological catastrophes. Visitors will view big-screen animated simulations of worst-case scenarios, including volcanic eruptions and the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. They can also take a bus tour of nearby Site 300, where LLNL researchers conduct non-nuclear explosives tests (although they won't blow anything up for you—we asked).
Trip tip: At the National Ignition Facility, you'll see technicians at the controls of the world's largest and highest-energy laser and get the lowdown on the quest for hydrogen fusion.
Info: Free; ages 18 and up; for reservations, call the Public Affairs Office at 925-422-4599; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Head Into the Lab
Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, N.Y.
Researchers from some of the dozens of labs at Brookhaven, a U.S. Department of Energy facility, will guide you through the latest developments in medical, energy, environmental and national-security research. Tours run on summer Sundays starting July 17 at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, where scientists will demonstrate their work with electron microscopes and plasma etchers. Or check out the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), used for revealing proteins and other microscopic structures, and the nearly complete NSLS-II. At 10,000 times the strength of its predecessor, the x-ray will be one of the brightest lights in the world, enabling researchers to see ever-smaller entities in great detail. In August you can enter the 2.5-mile tunnel housing the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider to get a look at its 1,740 superconducting magnets and two condo-size collision detectors, and follow storm trackers in the National Weather Service control room.
Trip tip: Don't miss the solar-powered bio-bus mobile lab, where you can get hands-on with sophisticated microscopes on loan from Columbia University.
Info: Free; Sundays, July 17–August 14, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. (first come, first served); Brookhaven National Laboratory