You may have heard that, after an exasperating series of setbacks and delays, the massive particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running. Even in preliminary tests, it’s set records for the most powerful particle collisions ever recorded in a lab – and when it’s reactivated later this year, it’s expected to set new ones.

Recently, I was struck by this quote from a National Geographic article on the LHC:

So far, the CERN team has been very cautious as it ramps up toward full power — and that’s a good thing, said Fermilab’s [Dan] Green.

Even if caution means that it takes a while for experiments to start, Green said, “I’ve been in this business for more than 20 years. I can wait a little longer.”

When I read that, I was reminded of the medieval cathedral builders – the architects who embarked on these grand projects knowing, or so the story goes, that they wouldn’t see them to completion in their own lifetime. This selfless labor produced some magnificent architecture – but while I admire the beauty of great cathedrals, ultimately they’re sterile; they produce nothing of tangible benefit to humanity. But the same is not true of the great modern scientific experiments, the cathedrals of our time. These grand projects, while built on the same soaring scale and evoking the same reactions of awe and wonder, prove their worth by producing knowledge that expands our vision of the cosmos and humanity’s own place in it.

Image via. Note the relative size of the workers at bottom left.

At right is a photo of ATLAS, one of the six particle detectors installed in the Large Hadron Collider and currently the single largest one of its kind ever built. Like an onion, ATLAS is constructed as a series of concentric layers, each one designed to detect and measure different aspects of the different kinds of particles produced by collisions in the LHC – superconducting magnets to bend the path of charged particles and reveal their momentum, calorimeters to absorb particles and record their energy, others to record radiation, velocity, electric charge, and so on. ATLAS is about half the size of the Notre Dame Cathedral, weighs 7,000 tons – about the same as the Eiffel Tower – and running at full capacity, can generate one petabyte – one million gigabytes – of raw data per second. (A network of computers will process this deluge of data to filter out the relatively tiny fraction of events that are of interest for further processing.)

Among other discoveries, ATLAS and the LHC are hoped to make the first conclusive detection of the Higgs boson, the elusive particle that may explain the existence of mass. If more esoteric ideas in physics are true – such as supersymmetry, the idea that every species of elementary particle has a previously-undiscovered, massive partner – ATLAS could also explain what makes up the majority of the universe’s dark matter. If certain hypotheses of string theory are correct, it could even even prove the existence of extra dimensions.

Another modern cathedral in the making is the Thirty-Meter Telescope, an enormous ground-based observatory to be built in Hawaii atop the summit of Mauna Kea. Scheduled for completion in 2018, the TMT will boast unparalleled range and sensitivity, observing the cosmos in wavelengths from infrared to ultraviolet with resolution as much as twelve times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Image via.

The TMT’s primary mirror, as its name suggests, will be thirty meters in diameter, giving it tremendous light-gathering capacity. (Hubble, by way of comparison, has a diameter of 2.5 meters.) But casting such a single, enormous piece of glass would be impossible – the mirror would sag under its own weight – so instead, the mirror will be made up of 492 hexagonal segments, each about a meter and a half in diameter and computer-controlled to work together as one. To compensate for the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere, the TMT will use a cutting-edge technology called adaptive optics. Nine laser emitters around the telescope will fire laser beams into the sky; sensors detect the photons that are scattered back to the telescope and compare their predicted waveforms with what’s actually observed. Using that information as a reference, the telescope’s computers will control thousands of mechanical actuators that reshape the mirror’s surface as rapidly as eight hundred times per second, with a precision measured in nanometers, to perfectly cancel out the distortion of the atmosphere – and all this as the entire massive assembly slews across the sky to keep pace with Earth’s rotation.

When complete, the TMT will be able to see the oldest and faintest starlight in the universe, back to the first stars that ignited just 400 million years after the Big Bang, and the formation of the first generation of galaxies. It will be able to directly observe Earthlike planets around nearby stars, detect supermassive black holes at cosmological distances and take direct images of their accretion disks, map the distribution of dark matter with unprecedented detail, and image the universe with greater clarity than was ever possible before.

One more example is LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, currently up and running in the United States. Like the other scientific cathedrals, it shows the tremendous effort and astounding ingenuity that human beings have poured into understanding the details of the universe we live in.

The theory of general relativity predicts that cosmic catastrophes like the collision of two neutron stars or the merger of two black holes should produce gravitational waves – fluctuations in spacetime which ripple outward from their source. The direct detection of gravitational waves would confirm one of the last and greatest predictions of Albert Einstein, and could potentially provide important information about the behavior of black holes and other massive, distant objects that are difficult or impossible to observe in the electromagnetic spectrum – since gravitational waves, unlike light rays, are not blocked by cosmic gas and dust.

Image via.

LIGO has two physically separate sites, one in Louisiana and one in Washington. Each site operates an identical detector: a laser interferometer, which consists of two tubes set up in an L shape. Each tube is two and a half miles long, is filled with an ultra-high vacuum, and contains a set of mirrors at each end. A beam splitter fires a laser beam down both arms of the L simultaneously; at the far end of each, it strikes the mirror and is reflected back to its point of origin. Under normal circumstances, the two lasers bounce back in perfect simultaneity. But the ripples of a passing gravitational wave would distort space in one direction, causing one of the laser beams to return before the other, which can be detected. If both sites register the same event simultaneously (accounting for lightspeed delay), we can be certain that it arrived from a cosmological source rather than some local event on Earth.

But even the strongest expected sources of gravitational waves, such as a merger of black holes, produce an effect that will be extremely faint by the time it reached Earth, due to the great distances involved. To account for this, LIGO needs astounding sensitivity and precision. The tube arms of the interferometer are filled with an ultra-high vacuum, evacuated to a pressure of just one-trillionth of an atmosphere, to prevent scattering of the lasers by gas molecules – one of the largest and purest vacuums ever created on Earth. (By comparison, the International Space Station orbits through atmosphere a hundred times denser.) And LIGO’s mirrors are cooled to just one-millionth of a degree above absolute zero to prevent thermal noise from distorting their surfaces. With these and other innovations, LIGO’s sensitivity and precision are such that it can detect a change in length as tiny as 10-18 meters – one-thousandth the diameter of a proton. And future improvements in the works will increase its sensitivity by a factor of ten.

These great cathedrals, devoted not to worshipping imaginary deities but to understanding the cosmos we live in, give me hope for humanity’s future in a way that few other endeavors do. Our world is still roiled by war, burdened by overpopulation, inflamed by religion, threatened by climate change. Yet in the midst of all the stupidity, all the greed and short-sightedness and delusion, there are places where human beings from many nations and cultures have come together to construct vast projects that are purely peaceful and devoted solely to the cause of gaining knowledge. There’s no better testament to the fact that, when we choose, we can rise above our worst instincts and cooperate on something worthwhile and beautiful. Even more than any of the specific scientific findings they may produce, this is the most valuable lesson that humanity in general has to learn from these modern wonders of the world.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • CzarGarrett

    I get giddy and excited whenever something new shows up at my lab- microscopes, gas chromatographs, etc.

    Stuff like this practically makes me froth at the mouth.

    Bring on the Higgs!

  • D

    Holy cannoli, this stuff is amazing! The TMT & LIGO are new ones on me, and they’re absolutely ingenious – I don’t even care about Old Testament barbarism or Jesus’ failure to cure cancer any more, this is way cooler than stupid old omniscience!

    Seriously, who even gives a shit about what some yahoo wrote a few thousand years ago? We got computer-controlled, laser-calibrated compound eyes in space! Put that in your pope and smike it!

  • MissCherryPi

    This is how I feel about the Hoover Dam.

  • jack

    These are truly marvelous examples, and there are so many more. Not all of them take the form of cathedral-sized structures, but they fit the pattern because of the scale of effort and cooperation involved, and in the magnitude of the discoveries they reveal. The human genome project was one, and one of my favorites was the Voyager project. Those two tiny spacecraft, along with the Deep Space Network and the team of scientists and engineers who made it all happen, truly revealed the wonders of the outer solar system. We are so fortunate to be the first generation of humans to see it.

  • Marlon

    As awesome as the great European cathedrals are, they are monuments to unquestioning submission to authority. A major part of their purpose was, and is, to intimidate. I always wonder what the world would be like if, instead of cathedrals, we had 800 year old universities scattered across the continent.

    If you like science, big engineering, big construction (and Ravel), check out this YouTube stop action video of ATLAS under construction:

  • Conversational Atheist

    Great entry. I really hope the TMT gets fully funded and built, it will do some sick things. I think 2018 is an optimistic goal, but we’ll see.

    ATLAS is nice — I just wanted to give a shout out to CMS. I have a bunch of friends that work on CMS

    LIGO has done and Advanced LIGO will do some crazy impressive stuff. I hope that LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Array) ends up being launched as well. It’s essentially LIGO in space — but it’ll be an array of three satellites flying in a triangle with each leg being 5,000,000 km long.

    I’m curious, how’d you choose these three experiments to cover?

  • Katie M

    Don’t forget Spirit, Opportunity, and Phoenix.

    To partially quote Carl Sagan, “How lucky we are to live in this time . . .”

  • Steve Bowen

    I always wonder what the world would be like if, instead of cathedrals, we had 800 year old universities scattered across the continent.

    but we have

  • Lynet

    A while back some undergrads at Caltech made a (silly, informative) video about LIGO, which can be found here.

  • Zietlos

    Mine eyes have gazed beauty beyond that of a mortal, for I have gazed through the eyes of the gods, seen the farthest reaches of the universe, manipulated the smallest component particles in existence, and cured diseases in the masses with naught but a pill’s worth of powder. I can turn the fungus of nightshade into a powerful cure. I can clone animals, even create entirely new species from just the blood and eggs of others. I can regress birds into scaled dinosaurs. I can predict and cause earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. I can create cold at will colder than anything in the natural world or depths of space. I can use mere light as a weapon capable of shearing steel in twain. I can transform hydrogen into helium, and turn two gasses into water with naught but electricity. I am Science. Respect me, and do not deny me…

    We seem to become closer and closer to our ideals every day. I can’t wait for this telescope thing to finish and see the farthest reaches of space.

  • the chaplain

    Projects like this leave me in awe and remind me how silly religious beliefs are. Religion at its best is still dreadfully dull compared to the majesty of reality.

  • Ebonmuse

    I’m curious, how’d you choose these three experiments to cover?

    Well, the LHC has gotten plenty of press lately, and that article I read on NatGeo was what inspired this post, so it seemed only right to give it pride of place. The TMT I found out about through link surfing on Wikipedia, I think, and LIGO was described in Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos.

    There are lots of other experiments I could have mentioned, if I hadn’t wanted to keep this from getting overly long. Two others I was fascinated by are the James Webb Space Telescope, the construction of which requires an entire airplane hangar-size building to be kept cooled to just above absolute zero, and Gravity Probe B, a satellite which measures the frame-dragging effect predicted by general relativity using one of the most precise gyroscopes ever built by human beings. The gyroscopes contain a sphere so perfect, if it were blown up to the size of the Earth, the tallest mountain would be only eight feet high.

  • Jim Sabiston

    Great post! I would take a bit of an exception the ‘sterile’ cathedral observation, however. The intent of the cathedrals was likely two-fold: first as an expression of power and presence. Tough to beat that one, especially in the context of the times.

    The other was aesthetics – an expression of the best in human skill and creativity available at the time. The religious entities (this is not limited to catholic churches) were the only organizations with the resources to build these structures outside of the aristocratic ruling classes – which rarely built anything quite comparable. As an expression of homage to our creator (regardless of the specific religion in question) these structures were an inspirational vehicle for amazing artistic expression, all performed by the talented artisans of the time.

    The context is quite different, art and creativity vs technology and the pursuit of knowledge, but sterile? I think not.

  • valdemar

    One point to bear in mind about the great European cathedrals is that they were built by non-clergy. That explains the jokey, pagan or even sexually explicit decorations. Check out the Sheelagh-na-gig, for instance. The bishops took the glory and the cash they brought in, but thousands of nameless craftsmen deserve the credit for the beauty.

  • bassmanpete

    …filled with an ultra-high vacuum…

    I know what you mean, but how do you fill something with a vacuum :)

  • Caiphen

    Our future is bright because we will keep this cooperation on track. I am a man of faith, faith in humanity and our amazing ability. The current religious confusion on our planet will be stamped out by scientific truth as our knowledge of the universe increases and continues to expose the lies of religion.

  • goyo

    Rather ironic as the last space shuttle is in orbit right now.
    Zeitlos: loved it!

  • Alex Siyer

    I would have liked to be in the first generation of humans to see another dimensión :(

  • Stephen P

    Although the funding of the cathedrals was a monument to religious authoritarianism, and although they were, as already mentioned, a major aesthetic achievement, the gothic cathedrals were also and above all a major engineering achievement. They were of necessity developed by empirical methods, and were the outlet for the talents of the engineers of the age. In their achievement of great height on comparatively thin pillars, with large areas of glass in between, the late gothic cathedrals eclipsed any buildings of the Greeks or Romans.

  • TommyP

    Dude, this post totally rocks. Keep up the good work Ebon!

  • Twin-Skies

    Ebon, I would have to disagree on the matter of Cathedrals having no tangible benefits.

    Here in the Philippines, Cathedrals were often made of solid stone and mason, and formed the core of most of our early towns, which would eventually develop into our major cities.

    They were more than just a symbol of Church authority – they were intentionally the sturdiest structure in the towns since they also doubled as defensive fortifications, much like a medieval keep. Whenever Muslims and bandits attempted to attack the town, the defenders and locals would barricade themselves in the church, and either drive off the attackers, or wait until reinforcements from neighboring towns arrived.

    Then there is the matter of churches being used a makeshift field hospitals during times of war.

    They do have their benefits to society, although not in the original purpose the church intended for them.

    The HADRON Collider, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a modern-day architectural wonder that lives up to its intended purpose. I find it interesting you’re alluding the collider to cathedrals – if I didn’t know any better, that was a tongue-in-cheek reference to 40k’s Adeptus Mechanicus :D

    All hail the machine gods!

  • Valhar2000

    Ebon, I would have to disagree on the matter of Cathedrals having no tangible benefits.

    They do serve as a source of revenue in many places, although, depending on the Cathedral in question, that money may go to the Church coffers, a black-hole if ever there was one.

  • Katie M

    Read this-

    I think it’s amazing that we can do this kind of thing. We’re getting closer to discovering the truth about the origin of the universe. What an exciting time to be alive!

  • LindaJoy

    I worked at Fermilab for five years as a docent and gave tours of these machines. They truly ARE works of art. After I moved away, one of the scientists working on the DZERO detector was looking for editors to work on manuscripts of two books he wrote, and I was asked to give the non-scientist view and make comments on both books in exchange for being recognized in the acknowledgements. His second book just came out last year on the Large Hadron Collider in CERN. If anyone is interested in reading more, the book is The Quantum Frontier by Don Lincoln. It is geared to people with some knowledge of collider physics, but Don is very good at explaining things for newcomers. Now I just need to save up for a trip to see the machines in Switzerland! By the way, Don’s first book is Understanding the Universe- From Quarks to the Cosmos.

  • Don Lincoln

    The LHC is an amazing bit of engineering. As LindaJoy said, I wrote a book on it. If you’re interested in the details, but at a level that doesn’t require extensive study, take a look.

    The LHC will startup again in a week or so. Then several weeks of cautious shakedown, and then operations. The date of first operations depends on how well they can do all the tests, but with any luck, research operations will start in a month or so.

  • LindaJoy

    Hello Don! :) What a surprise to see your post on here! See, I am a good little editor, plugging your book whenever I can. Ebonmuse runs a great site here, and he often expresses his interest in science. I believe he won a science award for an essay he did involving geology/evolution. Plus he gets hits here from all over the world. I visit this site often and find great encouragement for my views and new information all the time. Hope the Tevatron still gets some good exercise despite CERN coming on line.