The Wonderful World of Big Science

For most of its history, science has always been done by individual or at best a small group of scientists. World War II changed that: during the war, government-sponsored laboratories employing thousands of scientists sprung up to do large-scale research on weapons and technology. Since then, scientific research has entered a new era dubbed "Big Science".

Whether "big" science is any better than "small" science is a matter of controversy. Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory Alvin Weinberg (who coined the term "Big Science" in the 1960s) defended the organization and big-budget financing of Big Science as the only way to continue research into progressively more complex scientific matters. On the other hand, science historian Paul Forman posited that defense-related funding by the government shifted the focus in physics from basic to applied research.

Whatever the answer, Big Science is here to stay. So let's take a look at some of the biggest Big Science projects in the World:

1. The Manhattan Project

During World War II, urged by physicists Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd, President Franklin Roosevelt sanctioned a secret government project to develop the world's first atomic bomb. Dubbed the Manhattan Project, this secret weapon program employed more than 130,000 people over 30 different research and production sites and cost $2 billion ($24 billion in today's dollar).

The Manhattan Project was initially called the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Metals (a purposely deceptive cover name by the military). Concerned that even that name would attract too much attention, the military changed it to the Manhattan Engineer District or the Manhattan Project for short.

The very first problem facing the scientists was how to initiate a controlled and self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. In 1942, scientists at the University of Chicago's "Metallurgical Laboratory" (yes, another cover name) achieved such a reaction. Physicist Arthur Compton promptly placed a coded telephone call to Washington, D.C., saying "The Italian navigator has landed in the new world, the natives are friendly." And so began the atomic age.

What Happens in Oak Ridge, Stays in Oak Ridge: World War II-era billboard at the Oak Ridge Facility, part of the Manhattan Project. (Photo: Life)

Calutron at the secret Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was used to enrich the uranium fuel required for nuclear weapons. (Source: DOE)

Perhaps what's more remarkable than making the first atomic bomb was that the scientists managed to keep the mega project secret, even from their wives:

At a social gathering a few days later, Laura Fermi noticed her husband being bombarded with congratulations. She wanted to know why, but no one would give her a reason. Woods finally whispered to her: "He has sunk a Japanese admiral!" When Laura Fermi asked her husband if that was true, he replied, "Did I?" The obvious next question was asked: "So you didn't sink a Japanese admiral?" Without changing his sincere expression, Fermi said, "Didn't I?" Laura Fermi would not learn of the events of December 2 for another two-and-a-half years.

The very first nuclear explosion was conducted on July 16, 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The detonation was equivalent to the explosion of about 20 kiloton of TNT. It marked the beginning of the Atomic Age.

[YouTube Clip]

(Note: the history of the Manhattan Project is very fascinating. Interested readers are highly recommended to read the early history of the Manhattan Project over at Argonne National Laboratory: Link)

2. Space Race

Although it's debatable whether "science" was much of a part of the Space Race, there's no doubt that it definitely filled the "Big" part of "Big Science." From 1957 to 1975, the United States spent approximately $100 billion competing with the Soviet Union in space exploration.

The Space Race was kicked off in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1, making it the first space power. A couple of months later, they launched Sputnik-2 with the first living passenger to go to space, Laika the dog. Then Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space when he orbited Earth in 1961. There's no question that the Soviet Union took the early lead (United States' first attempt at space exploration, the Vanguard rocket, pathetically blew up on the launching pad).

In 1961, President Kennedy proclaimed that Americans would land a man on the Moon before the decade was out. In public, Kennedy said that NASA's Apollo Program would benefit the economy, close the missile gap in which the Soviets have more ballistic missile weapons than the Americans, and spur science and technology in the United States. In private, Kennedy said that his main motivation was to beat the Soviet Unions and show them who's better.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon, photo taken by Neil Armstrong (Photo: NASA)

Video of the very first moon landing of the Apollo 11 mission [YouTube Clip]

In 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the lunar surface. The momentous event marked the apex of the Space Race, and intense rivalries between the US and the Soviet Union dwindled from that point on. In 1975, the Space Race came to an end with the rendezvous of the Apollo and the Soyuz spacecraft in orbit.

3. Human Genome Project

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization identification of human chromosomes (better known as "chromosome painting"). This technique uses DNA probes attached to fluorescent markers to identify the various human chromosomes. Photo: Steven M. Carr

Not all Big Science projects are physics and engineering. The Human Genome Project is a project to sequence the entire 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up the human DNA and identify all the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes that make up our genome.

The project formally began in 1990, and was estimated to take 15 years to complete. In contrast to other Big Science projects listed here, the Human Genome Project was actually completed two years earlier than expected due to better technology (take that, physics!). The final sequencing of human DNA was completed in 2003, though analysis of the data is ongoing till today.

It's easy to envision the benefits that the Human Genome Project for humanity: advances in understanding our genetics would undoubtedly aid medicine and research to cure diseases. But some people point out that the ethical, legal and social costs may be high: who owns and should have access to our genetic information? Do people's genes make them behave in a particular way and if so, how would this factor in determining guilt or innocence when it comes to criminal behaviors?

4. International Space Station

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked to the Russian Mir Space Station in 1995 (Photo: NASA)

The International Space Station in 2009 (Photo: NASA)

Hands down, the biggest Big Science project ever launched is so big, so expensive, and so ambitious that it is - literally - out of this world. The International Space Station, a joint collaboration of space agencies of a couple dozens of countries, is not so much a scientific project as an exercise of engineering prowess and political will.

The ISS is so expensive that it's hard to pin down its actual cost. The European Space Agency estimates that the entire station costs €100 billion over a period of 30 years. Critics pointed out that the amount of science being done is paltry as compared to the sums of money being spent, but its advocates defended the program as a necessary first step towards manned exploration of space.

5. Hubble Space Telescope

In 1923, pioneers of modern rocketry imagined that rockets could propel a telescope in Earth's orbit, but it wasn't until the late 1970s that the Hubble Space Telescope project got off the ground (after an intense lobbying of Congress by astronomers, no less).

Hubble Space Telescope released by the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990
(Photo: NASA/IMAX)

Hubble Space Telescope, as seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery on its second servicing mission in 1997 (Photo: NASA)

Like many Big Science projects, the Hubble Space Telescope was fraught with errors and setbacks. The Challenger disaster brought US space program to a halt and forced the project to be postponed for years. When the telescope was finally launched, scientists found that it was out of focus because its primary mirror had been ground to the wrong shape! The telescope became the butt of jokes (an editorial cartoon likened the telescope as being built by the nearsighted Mr. Magoo)

Three years later, scientists gave the telescope a new set of "eyeglasses" and Hubble began producing some of the most fantastic images from space ever seen. The telescope went from being the butt of jokes into the apple of Big Science's eye.

"Pillars of Creation", the star-forming pillars in the Eagle Nebula, one of Hubbles' most famous photos. Image: NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University)

In its nearly two decades of service, the Hubble Space Telescope has snapped over 570,000 pictures of the birth and deaths of stars and galaxies.

6. Super Kamiokande

Every second, 50 trillion solar neutrinos pass through your body so it's no wonder that this "ghostly" elementary particle is so darned difficult to detect. But that doesn't deter physicists building the Super Kamiokande (Super-K, if you want to be cute) neutrino detector in Japan.

All photos from the Super Kamiokande Photo Gallery

The Super-K is basically a tank filled with 50,000 tons of ultra-pure water, buried some 1,000 m (3,280 ft) underground. The idea is that once in a great while, a neutrino will interact with electrons or nuclei of water that will create a detectable electromagnetic radiation called the Cherenkov radiation (the blue glow we usually see in nuclear reactor cores).

7. Superconducting Super Collider

Perhaps the most difficult part of a Big Science project is actually not science - it's the politics, and there's no better example of this fact than the birth and demise of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas.

In late 1982, Fermilab Director Leon Lederman proposed a gigantic particle accelerator that would be the world's largest. Dubbed "The Machine in the Desert" or Desertron, the particle accelerator would be 54 miles long tubes of capable of producing enough energy to snag the Holy Grail of particle physics, the elusive Higgs Boson.

Initial estimate of the project pegged the cost at $3 billion, but in just a couple of years, the projected total cost had quadrupled to $12 billion and the SSC became a political football. In 1992, the Collider was killed by the House only to be resurrected by the Senate ("It's not the science, it's the jobs"). The next year, the House killed it again and the Senate revived it again ("It's actually not the jobs, it's America's supremacy in science"). A few months later they ran out of excuses, the House killed the SSC again and this time, it stayed dead.

Photo: Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

When it was cancelled, $2 billion had been spent and some 23 km (14 mi) of tunnels had been dug, thus leaving Texas with a super-sized hole in the ground.

8. Very Large Array

Remember the scene in the 1997 movie Contact, where the character played by Jodie Foster received signals from outer space? All those antennas are actually real - they're part of the radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico called the Very Large Array (VLA).

Very Large Array (Photo: Lee Otis [Flickr])

Very Large Array and the Moon (Photo: NRAO/AUI)

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory's VLA is composed of 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration, located on the Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico. Each antenna is 25 m (82 ft) in diameter and weighs about 230-ton. They're programmed to work together as a single instrument (hence the name).

The Very Large Array is actually going to be even larger - 8 new stations as distant as 250 km (155 mi) from the current array are planned (but not yet funded).

9. National Ignition Facility

Laser beams entering the target chamber at the NIF. Photo: Dave Bullock (more at his gallery at Wired)

The interior of the NIF target chamber (Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Lab)

The mild name of the National Ignition Facility belies one big fact: it is the world's largest laser, capable of heating and compressing a small amount of hydrogen fuel to the point of nuclear fusion. Simply said, the NIF recreates the condition of an exploding star right here on Earth.

The NIF is designed to deliver nearly 2 million joules of ultraviolet laser energy in billionth-of-a-second pulses onto a target of hydrogen fuel smaller than a match head, heating it up to 100 million degrees while simultaneously subjecting it to pressures 100 billion times Earth's atmosphere. If everything goes well (and that's a very big if - there's a lot that could go wrong. For instance, the NIF has some 60,000 points of control, 30 times as many as on the space shuttle), it would deliver the holy grail of energy: nuclear fusion.

The NIF is so full of technical marvels that it's hard to pick just one to highlight. But if we had to pick one, it would be this: when fired, the pulses of NIF's 192 laser beams - comprised of nearly 60 miles of mirrors, fiber optics, crystals and amplifiers - must arrive within trillionths of a second of each other and must strike within 50 micrometers on the target. The NIF website describes it as such:

NIF's pointing accuracy can be compared to standing on the pitcher's mound at AT&T Park in San Francisco and throwing a strike at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, some 350 miles away (Source).

10. Large Hadron Collider

Photo: Maximilien Brice, CERN

CMS Detector commissioning in Cessy, France, VR Photography by Peter McCready

If there's a science project that is synonymous with Big Science, it's CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Everything about this project is big: at 27 km (17 mi) circumference, the LHC is the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. It is built by over 10,000 scientists and engineers from hundreds of universities and laboratories from over 100 countries.

It's expensive, too: the LHC cost the member countries of CERN and other participating countries an estimated €4.6 billion (about US$ 6.4 billion), not including extras like detectors and computing capacity (an additional €1.43 billion).

The risks are also big. Doomsday scenarios include micro black holes with a mass of Mt. Everest, killer strangelets, magnetic monopoles, and vacuum bubbles which would pop all of us out of existence.

For more, see:
- 10 Things About the LHC You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask
- I Survived the Large Hadron Collider T-Shirt

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