10 huge machines that changed science
When it comes to science, brawn can be brilliant.
THEY’RE STRONG. THEY’RE SMART. They’re the big machines of science. From deep-sea-diving dream boats to ersatz earthquake emitters; from space-faring weightless halls to subterranean subatomic particle slammers: These powerhouses were built for discovery. They’ve been used to puzzle out the secrets of the early universe and prepare us for a future filled with spaceflight—and that’s not all. When it comes to science, brawn can be brilliant. But there’s no such thing as too big to fail: Some of the coolest colossals were cursed to crash and burn. Now you can have the whole fleet on deck. Start your collection today!
The Large Hadron Collider
WITH THIS RING, I THEE SMASH. This ring-shaped proton roller coaster is one of the single largest machines on the planet. Protons shoot through its nearly 17-mile-long underground tunnel at close to the speed of light; the universe can’t help but spill its secrets. Protons crash together at high speeds, revealing particles previously unknown. You’ve probably heard all about its 2012 grand slam, detecting the Higgs boson “God particle.” But this heavy hitter is pretty chill: At 456 degrees below zero, the electromagnets that make it all happen are colder than outer space. Could one day upend the standard model of physics—or maybe open up a hole to a new dimension. For now, the Hadron’s hard at work re-creating the Big Bang.
THE STATS: TEAM: Ace Accelerators. PRICE: $3.7 billion. ROOKIE YEAR: 2008. PLAYING FIELD: French/Swiss border. BATTING AVERAGE: Around 600 million particle collisions per second
The International Space Station
FLOATING IN A TIN CAN: it’s the best co-working space in space. Solar panels power 52 computers, 100-plus research bays, and nearly 1 million pounds of laboratory, built to accommodate constant renovations. It’s an adventurous earthling’s home away from home, with more room than a five-bedroom house, and plenty of international hospitality to go with all the groundbreaking science.
These days, the ISS hosts experiments meant to bust us out of orbit: Astronauts munch on lab-grown lettuce to prep for Martian farms, while scientists monitor the subtle ways bodies change during long stretches spent off-world. Bonus: spacewalk selfies.
THE STATS: TEAM: Lofty Labs. PRICE: $107 billion and counting. ROOKIE YEAR: 1998. PLAYING FIELD: 200 miles above Earth. GEAR: Packs in more than 8 miles of wire.
PUT IT ALL ON THE TABLE. Earthquake- resilience testing is on shaky ground—and boy are we glad. Pistons and hydraulics make our killer science kaiju rock and roll. This monster has the mechanical muscles to shake up full-size replicas of six-story apartment buildings. Inspired by the aftermath of a 1995 quake in Japan, this baby gives model cities a seismic ride from hell—so city planners can learn to deal with real-life tremors. And it’s got sweet moves: Its shake patterns can produce all kinds of pseudo-seismic activity. If an E-Defense’s 7.5 magnitude test doesn’t blow your house down, nature doesn’t stand a chance. (Knock on wood.)
THE STATS: TEAM: Movers and Shakers. PRICE: $500 million. ROOKIE YEAR: 2005. PLAYING FIELD: Hyogo, Japan. FIGHTING WEIGHT: Can support up to 2.5 million pounds.
The National Ignition Facility
MY GOD, IT’S FULL OF LASERS. Why build a laser when you could build 192 lasers? All those beams focus on one BB-size target, and it feels the pressure—more than 100 billion times the force of Earth’s atmosphere. The real aim? Turn a single, tiny hydrogen seed into a starlike explosion. Cue fantasies of full-on fusion that could power futuristic homes around the globe. This extreme experiment is inspired by the reactions that power the sun, so it’s no sweat for temps to reach 180 million degrees Fahrenheit. More than 40,000 mirrors and optical components make for one super superlaser. Could one day help to generate clean, sustainable energy…or blow us to smithereens. Ka-boom.
THE STATS TEAM: Major Lasers. PRICE: $3.5 billion. ROOKIE YEAR: 2009. PLAYING FIELD: Livermore, California. POWER: 2 million joules.
Atacama Large Millimeter Array
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS. The gang hangs out high and dry at 16,000 feet above sea level in the world’s most arid desert—the perfect place for pristine stargazing. Not that this team needs darkness to dish on the sky’s secrets. Optical telescopes pick up visible light; by contrast, these tune in to the radio waves emitted by distant stars. We’re talking about 66 individual dishes (most a bit over 39 feet across) homed in on distant galaxies. Special 28-wheelers drag players to and fro, hauling them across the desert to form different (trans)formations to zoom in on extraterrestrial targets. The result? Some of the sharpest images of their kind.
THE STATS: TEAM: Telescope Troopers. PRICE: $1.4 billion. ROOKIE YEAR: 2011. PLAYING FIELD: Atacama Desert, Chile. PINCH HITS FOR: A 14,000-foot-wide single scope.
Ancient Telescope Tunnel
DYING TO SEE THE STARS. These seven-stoned structures—probably tombs—likely did double-duty by helping Mesolithic humans get a glimpse of key constellations. An optical illusion made for stellar sights: By framing the night sky just so, dark tunnels with narrow doors made the stars look bigger to the person gazing up at the heavens from inside. That primitive play on modern telescope tech might just prove prehistoric humans’ astronomy savvy. Seven huge slabs of granite. Stonehenge-like design. Aligned with the rising sun. Probably home to some pretty trippy burial ceremonies. That’s some gravely good science for roughly 6,000 years ago.
THE STATS: TEAM: Stone Stargazers. PRICE: Blood, sweat, rocks. ROOKIE YEAR: Around 4,000 B.C. PLAYING FIELD: 186 locations in Portugal and Spain. LENSES: Zero.
AS THE WORLD TURNS: World keeps a-spinnin’; pendulum keeps a-swingin’. 1851 science experiment turned museum staple. Physicist Léon Foucault wanted to demonstrate how Earth rotates, and so a legendary icon was born. Heavy weight…long cable…free to sway as it pleases. But while the path it takes slowly spins in a circle, the pendulum isn’t turning. It’s Earth that rotates, and we’re all just along for the ride. Looks simple enough, but proves that Earth is always on the move—in one fell swoop. The pendulum goes counterclockwise south of the equator, clockwise to the north, just like Earth. Some have swung continuously for decades.
THE STATS: TEAM: Seasoned Swingers. PRICE: A weight and some wire. ROOKIE YEAR: 1851. PLAYING FIELD: Paris, France. WORLD’S BIGGEST: Portland, Oregon’s 70-foot-long swinger.
SO LONG, AND THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH. Astronauts became aquanauts to prove that people could live underwater for a spell. Visitors tested underwater tools, grew plants, mined ore, and studied the ocean floor. But helium-infused air and precarious canyon-edge real estate made the “Tilton Hilton” one lousy vacation spot. Scientists jammed with squeaky voices and ukuleles inside their damp digs—but tests showed they didn’t lose strength or smarts during their time spent below the surface. Astronaut Scott Carpenter lasted a whole 30 days—long enough for a high-pitched call with President Lyndon B. Johnson. MVP: Tuffy the trained dolphin, the crew’s cetacean mail courier.
THE STATS: TEAM: Nautical Nerds. PRICE: $2 million. ROOKIE YEAR: 1965. PLAYING FIELD: La Jolla Canyon, California. TRAINED DOLPHINS: 1.
IT’S ALIVE. The infamous Serbian’s flashiest invention. His shocking plan? Transfer power wirelessly over huge distances. Too bad it failed, leaving the fragile inventor emotionally fried. While they won’t send power to parts unknown, they’ll certainly fling it across a room. Each coil packs a capacitor to store power. Get a pair close together, give one some juice, and the air between them fills with current. Think: lightning bolts, potentially lethal voltage, and maybe a little maniacal laughter.
Once provided power for all sorts of electrical objects, but these days they’re benched by better tech—unless your aim is aesthetic.
THE STATS: TEAM: Dapper Zappers. PRICE: Enough to tank Tesla. ROOKIE YEAR: 1891. PLAYING FIELD: Colorado Springs, Colorado. POWER: Max of 12 million volts.
WHT GOES UP… First U.S. space station to rise. Only one to fall. Multistory construction. Space shower. Big enough to test spacewalking equipment indoors. In short? Astronaut paradise. Almost. Endless engineering issues plagued the epic enterprise. There were so many onboard problems to fix that one exhausted crew actually went on strike. Budget cuts and good old gravity took care of the rest. But it was a great run: Nearly 300 science experiments helped prove that people could live in space long-term. Then 200,000 pounds of tech rendezvoused with Earth after 34,000 orbits. The atmosphere smashed Skylab to bits, scattering sciency shards across Western Australia. Orbital decay: 1, Skylab: 0.
THE STATS: TEAM: Lofty Labs. PRICE: $2.5 billion. ROOKIE YEAR: 1973. PLAYING FIELD: 270 miles above Earth. FINAL INNING: July 11, 1979.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of Popular Science.*