To improve our view of a vast and complex universe, scientists are creating increasingly ambitious new tools. The work is not easy. Truly big science requires decades of expensive commitment from multiple nations. But the instruments that result are nearly as awe-inspiring as the new worlds they help us discover.
How We Did It
Like anything that’s large and involved, big science is not easy to measure. For our rankings, we took into account four objective factors: the construction costs above all, but also the operating budget, the size of the staff and the physical size of the project itself. Even these were hard to compare on an apples-to-apples basis, though, so we also used a tiering system. Then we added in three subjective factors, weighing them more heavily to reflect their relative importance: the project’s scientific utility, its utility to the average person (“what will it do for me”) and the always essential “wow” factor.
10: THE RELATIVISTIC HEAVY ION COLLIDER
A time machine to reveal the origins of the universe When gold ions speeding inside the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider on Long Island, New York, smash into each other, these collisions can produce temperatures of up to 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit, so hot that protons and neutrons melt. As those particles disintegrate, the quarks and gluons of which they are comprised freely interact to form a new state of matter, called a quark-gluon plasma. As the material cools after the collision is over, protons and neutrons re-form, producing 4,000 subatomic particles in the process. Using the RHIC, scientists are trying to re-create the conditions that existed during the first millionth of a second after the big bang.
To better understand how matter has evolved in our universe, physicists at the RHIC send gold atoms through several accelerators, stripping away their electrons so they become positively charged ions. Those ions launch into two circular tubes and race at up to 99.9 percent of the speed of light before they collide. In examining the remnants of these collisions, the scientists have found that particles at this post-big-bang stage behave more like a liquid instead of the predicted gas.
What’s In It For You
RHIC scientists are currently developing devices that accelerate protons and more precisely guide them to irradiate and kill cancerous tumors in humans. Engineers have also used the heavy ion beam to punch tiny holes in plastic sheets, making filters that can sort substances at the molecular level. Down the line, we might see more-efficient energy-storage devices based on the superconducting magnet technology used in the RHIC.