Scientific Artifacts from the Sky

By Sean Carroll | January 3, 2011 8:31 am

I was looking at Google maps at a location near Chicago, so I scooted over to take a look at Fermilab (map). As always, I was struck first by the sheer beauty of the arrangement, and next by how wonderful it is that we human beings would undertake such a massive project just to better understand the laws of nature. And finally, of course, by the irony that it takes something this big to examine particles on very small scales. Blame the wave nature of matter for that: to look at short distances, you need high energies, and that means a whomping big accelerator.

This moved me to take a look at other giant scientific facilities. Unfortunately CERN puts its accelerators underground, so the Large Hadron Collider doesn’t mark the landscape with enormous circles. Here’s SLAC (map), the largest linear accelerator in the world and claimed to be the world’s straightest object.

Astronomy — investigating the very big, rather than the very small — is the other specialty that makes good use of giant facilities. Here’s the collection of telescopes at the Mauna Kea Observatory (map).

Radio astronomers go even bigger. Here’s the Very Large Array (map). (Check out Arecibo if you prefer single-dish telescopes.)

Radio waves used to be an exotic way to look at the sky, but now we have gravitational waves. Here’s the LIGO facility in Hanford, Washington (map).

But it isn’t just particle physicists and astronomers who build landscape-altering facilities. Here’s the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab (map). It creates X-rays for use in materials science, biology, chemistry, and who knows what else.

These images are not all to the same scale; in particular, I had to zoom out for LIGO and the VLA, and zoomed in on Mauna Kea. But everything here is pretty big. It takes a substantial effort to figure out the universe.

Any other good suggestions?

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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