“Why is the sky blue?”

Haven’t we all asked that question at some point in our lives? I have.

These types of inquisitive ponderings often turn into a game or outright obnoxiousness depending on how you look at it. The continued why, why, and why of the preceding answer. Until, finally it reaches a point where the person answering all the questions must claim ignorance.

Personally, I enjoy these games. I remember getting a kick out of exasperating an adult as a kid with the incessant questions. I guess that probably says a lot about me. wink, wink

With children, I am now the adult on the receiving end of the questions and I take them on as a challenge. I go as far as I possibly can go until the answer invariably becomes “I don’t know, let’s go look it up!”. As we race to the nearest device available to search for the ultimate truth, I am so glad that we have the resources so accessible. As a kid, once the available adult and home encyclopedia was exhausted, we were out of luck. At least until the next trip to the library.

universe and big bangMy inquisitive nature inside has never faded. I still like to ask the questions. I am curious about the world around us, especially cosmology. I love cosmology. I won’t pretend that I understand it, but it still blows my mind.

The sheer scale baffles me. The time scale seemingly forever and the size scale seemingly unending. But they aren’t. What was before our universe? What is outside our universe? What will become of our universe? What? Where? Why? When? I want to know!

Luckily, I am not alone with these questions. Even more luckily, some of those people with the same questions are really smart and determined enough to actually pursue the answer. Some of them work with the Large Hadron Collider.

 

Large Hadron Collider

Globe of Science and Innovation at CERN

Globe of Science and Innovation at CERN

CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or in french “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire” if you were curious where the acronym came from.

CERN was initially proposed in 1949 to increase international scientific collaboration. This allows the pooling of their resources (money and brains) to conduct science. Don’t you love it when the noble pursuit of science can overcome political ugliness?

They have a number of different particle accelerators. These accelerators are designed to run some very specific experiments. Many of which you likely don’t hear about on the news.

But if you do pay attention to the news or are interested in physics, you have likely heard about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) observing the Higgs boson in 2012. But did you also know that the World Wide Web was also invented at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee? Yup, they needed a tool for information sharing amongst scientists all over the world. Problem-solving at its best!

As the LHC begins Run 2 in 2015 with increased energy, current, and magnetic strength, it is very exciting to see what they will observe. The world is watching and waiting with bated breath. I really get excited with my passion for cosmology so I can get a little closer to my big answers of how our universe came about.

If you like this kind of stuff enough that you want to get involved, go read my article on becoming a citizen scientist. Or, if you like the combination of science and art, I really think this movie looks great. Seeing how successful Run 1 of the LHC was, the LHC is getting a lot of press these days with the beginning of Run 2.

Not that all the attention isn’t merited, it is, but the LHC tends to be kind of a star (pun intended) amongst the scientific instrument community. It is stealing all the limelight. I thought it was time to spread a little of the love around and introduce you to some other extreme science to knock your socks off.

 

Scientific instruments you don’t know about

The human mind is fascinating that it can be so creative and curious. It can come up with fantastic ideas and theories, unfortunately our bodies can be limiting in many regards. Our senses only pick up a portion of the full range of what is happening in our world. Luckily, our minds can think its way through that problem by creating tools that allow us to sense the superhuman. Here is a variety of tools, from the huge and super high-technology to the relatively small and simple, that are world leading in their own sector.

  1. IceCube
    IceCube

    The IceCube Lab under the stars. Credit: Felipe Pedreros, IceCube/NSF

    • Where. The South Pole in Antarctica
    • Who. The IceCube Collaboration comprised of 44 institution in 12 countries. Additional funding partners include members such as the National Science Foundation as well as funding from Sweden, Belgium, Germany, and other countries. Once again, collaboration in the name of science.
    • What. The world’s largest neutrino detector. Here is a quick and dirty video titled What is a neutrino?
    • Other interesting information. Covering 1 cubic kilometer, the IceCube uses the compressed ice of the inhabitable place to their benefit. The large volume of clear stable ice gives the scientists exactly what they need to detect the light given off by neutrino interactions. Being so deep underground the sensitive equipment is shielded from radiation at the surface of the earth. Studying the data gathered will give insight into the makings of the universe and how it all works together.
    • Commentary. First of all, mad props to the person that came up with the name. It sounds like something the villain would have in an action movie. When you see the image of it, on the right, you can almost see James Bond climbing the structure to sneak in. What can I say? I love James Bond. Also, props to the scientists who will spend the long, cold isolated winter here in the name of science.
  2. laser

    Calibration of energy sensors. Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

    National Ignition Facility (NIF)

    • Where. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California
    • Who. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
    • What. The world’s largest laser. Here is a video that can give you a little information on lasers if you are interested, titled How a laser works.
    • Other interesting information. They use the laser to look at extreme states of matter such as high temperature and pressure. They are in pursuit of “ignition”. This is when the resulting energy is equal to or greater than the input energy. There are obvious widespread applications for this. It is an ambitious mission and it is hard to predict when this will be possible. Perhaps some interesting things can be learned in this journey.
    • Commentary. This is some cutting-edge stuff. I bet it is an interesting place to work. Research like this can change our world, in more ways than one. Let them have wisdom in pursuit and application.
  3. Isotropic crystalline whispering-gallery mode resonator
    Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing

    Credit: Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing

    • Where. Adelaide, Australia
    • Who. The University of Adelaide Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing supported by the Australian Research Council and the South Australian Government’s Premier’s Science and Research Fund
    • What. The world’s most sensitive thermometer. Here is an technical abstract to the paper. Attempt at your own risk.
    • Other interesting information. By measuring the difference in speed of red and green light circulating in a crystalline disk, they are able to determine the temperature. This reading is made with a precision of 30 billionths of a degree. The article linked on the name above mentions that the technology is small enough to be considered portable. It also mentions the future applications for industry and medicine.
    • Commentary. That is one of the neatest things about new discoveries in science, there are wide-ranging applications in the least expected areas for the new tools or knowledge. I love the simple elegance of this.
  4. Ivanpah
    ivanpah

    Ivanpah. Credit: BrightSource Energy

    • Where. Mojave desert in California
    • Who. NRG Energy with other partners such as NRG, Google, Bechtel Corporation, and the Department of Energy
    • What. The world’s largest solar thermal power plant
    • Other interesting information. Covering 3,500 acres, this array of solar panels can provide power for 140,000 homes. Although there are many environmental benefits to the sustainable process for obtaining this energy, there is always a victim somewhere, in this case it was the dwindling desert tortoise. Apparently, the tortoises inhabiting this area needed to be relocated because of the destruction of their habitat. You can read a news article about it at High Country News.
    • Commentary. OK, I know this isn’t exactly a scientific instrument. But I think large arrays of mirrors are neat and it involves clean energy, I thought I would slip it in. I think clean energy is a wonderful prospect that indeed needs to be leveraged. As for the collateral damage with wildlife, it is unfortunate. With any type of development there will always be some type of environmental impact that must be weighed accordingly.
  5. Anechoic chamber
    Anechoic Chamber

    Anechoic chamber. Credit: Orfield Labs

    • Where. Minneapolis, Minnesota
    • Who. Orfield Labs
    • What. The world’s quietest room.
    • Other interesting information. This room is used to test the noise level of devices such as lights, displays, and switches. Anechoic means no echo and the noise level in the room is -9 decibels. People tend to get disoriented once inside as they can only hear their own heart, breathing and digestive system. It really freaks people out. I recommend you watch the quick video over at the article from Discovery News.
    • Commentary. I am laughing at how they like to challenge people to see how long they can stay in there, a great sense of humor. It sounds kind of like a sensory deprivation tank, pretty wild. This isn’t as flashy as the other items on the list, but still is pretty neat, especially the way it plays with the human senses.

 

Questions and answers

While these tools are genius, I find something else impressive…the people who make it possible.

These people search for the answers to their questions for a long time. The patience and determination is admirable in a world that craves immediate results and satisfaction. The thought and grind is confirming that hard work pays off in a world that can all-too-often be superficial.

These people include those that:

  • were inspired and worked hard to develop the theory in the first place
  • envisioned how to verify such a theory
  • designed and created these instruments
  • gathered the data from the instruments, possibly for hours, days, and years
  • were able to make sense out of all the data and make meaning of it
  • write out and present the findings to the world so that we could understand (even on a very surface level)

At the end of it, if they are lucky, they find something or find nothing. Amazing.

So I personally want thank all those people who have done what everyone else is either incapable or unwilling to do themselves. Thank you for answering my questions. Thank you for pulling back the curtain to reveal one more solution to my unending line of questions when no other resource can. Thanks for saying “I don’t know, let’s go look it up.”

 

Your thoughts

What do you think? Pretty impressive, huh?

What kinds of discoveries do you like to hear about? Let me know in the poll  or comments.

 

What kind of science discovery stories interest you the most?

 

Resources

5 impressive scientific machine at Technolsoft

14 Immense Scientific Instruments You Won’t Believe Are Real at Gizmodo

How Long Could You Endure the World’s Quietest Place? at Slate

IceCube southpole neutrino observatory

Machine envy at Aeon

Mojave Mirrors: World’s Largest Solar Plant Ready to Shine at National Geographic

Scientific instruments at SciTechStory

The Large Hadron Collider’s Second Run Will Break Energy Records at Scientific American

The World’s Biggest Scientific Instrument Resumes at Huffington Post

World’s Quietest Room Will Drive You Crazy in 30 Minutes at Discovery News