At a dozen surprising sites across this country, discover the beauty, mystery, wildness and audacity of science.
Vacations tend to have themes, even if we don't consciously realize it. There's the search for the most majestic scenery, the highest mountain, the bluest waters — ideally without shoulder-to-shoulder crowds seeking the same thing. There's the roaming of Civil War battlefields, the riding of loop-de-loop roller coasters, the touring of grand estates.
But here’s one theme you may never have countenanced: the science vacation.
The Washington Post asked journalists to visit places that have a scientific backstory. Because from big cities to boondocks, science in its many fascinating forms shows up all across America. We limited our choices to the Lower 48 states and stayed clear of national parks. We also required that sites be open to the public. Otherwise, our criteria were broad and eclectic.
A dozen stops made the final list. Some are primarily notable for their geology, hydrology or seismology. Others feature highly sophisticated technology. A medical landmark is in the mix, as is a fungus immense enough to kill an entire forest.
Pack up and see for yourself. And let us know if there are places you can’t believe we overlooked. Another science trip may be down the road.
This story contains audio. Press the button below to listen as you read.
- Fly Geyser
- Ether Dome
- Atchafalaya Swamp
- Green Bank Observatory
- Earthquake Trail
- Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania
- Scopes Monkey Trial
- Cinder Lake
- Brookhaven Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider
- Cahokia Mounds
- Delmarva's Wintering Birds
- Humongous Fungus
Water. Steam. Massive Technicolor mounds. A bizarre mistake rises from the ground here, between the endless desert and mountains of remote northwestern Nevada.
This place, Fly Geyser, is undeniably weird. And it comes with a story to match, one that begins in the early 1900s when local homesteader Walt Parker drilled a well only to abandon it when he discovered hot water. Several decades later, a geothermal company or government agency — nobody really seems to know — tried tapping the same source. The water wasn’t hot enough for its needs, so the second well got capped. Poorly.
Pressurized water has been escaping ever since and sculpting Tolkienesque formations from calcium carbonate and silica. Today, the geyser looms 20 feet tall and nearly 40 feet across.
In 2016, Burning Man Project bought the 3,800-acre ranch that surrounds Fly Geyser. The freewheeling, free-spirited festival’s organizers partner with Friends of Black Rock-High Rock, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping people learn about and explore the area. For $40, staff and volunteers provide three-hour guided tours.
Getting to the site is a journey. It’s 21 miles north of Gerlach, Nev., population 206, which is more than two hours north of Reno. Despite the stark setting, it’s a fragile place, adjacent to thousands of acres claimed for lithium mines and the playa where tens of thousands of Burning Man revelers gather each year. The land has about 150 hot springs, 120 plant species and astonishingly abundant wildlife, including fairy shrimp, feral horses and mountain lions. Yet for most sightseers, the geyser is the star of the show.
A 1.5-mile trek takes them along oasis-like wetlands next to the Black Rock Desert. Fly Geyser plays peekaboo as the trail winds past its two smaller siblings. The 14-foot Wizard Geyser dates from a drilling attempt in 1917; its wizened spire spouted water until Fly Geyser stole its pressure. Last is Will’s Geyser, which looks like a six-foot anthill; locals used to cook hot dogs in it.
The air warms and smells mildly sulfuric. Clouds of steam billow above the reeds, and beyond them, Fly Geyser hisses.
“I like to refer to it as human-started, nature-improved,” explains Sarah Lyon, a Sacramento-area transplant who’s now the lead guide and on-site manager. “The water started coming out because of a man-made device, but everything that has happened to it since that time has been nature.”
Spectators gawk from a boardwalk as scalding water shoots into the air, then crackles and splatters onto textured plateaus. Vibrant colors streak the surface: maroon, green, yellow, orange and red from thermophilic algae and other dissolved minerals.
The geyser grows about six inches taller and wider each year.
It’s something of a cult celebrity, attracting more and more people. “The colors, the height, the spewing water and steam, the oddity of it all,” says Margie Reynolds, a Friends board member. “It’s a crazy, colorful thing in the seemingly barren desert.”
Erin E. Williams is a Nevada-based writer who focuses on animals, conservation, nature, health and travel.
Christie Hemm Klok is a San Francisco-based photographer and native Californian who focuses on portraits, industry and Bay Area stories.
The mummy had a long tour. He was hauled by stagecoach from New York to South Carolina, with people paying a dime or quarter to see him. Finally, back in Boston, they propped him against a wall in the high-domed operating room of Massachusetts General Hospital.
There he bore witness to the Bloody Spectacles. At 10 a.m. every Saturday, a patient would be strapped to a red velvet chair, gauze stuffed in their mouth, while a leg or an arm or even a breast was carved from their body. The screams, oh, the screams. Some said the operating theater was on the top floor to try to shield others below from the curdling cries.
Then the mummy saw something new.
The date was Oct. 16, 1846 — for once, a Friday. A printer named Gilbert Abbott was seated in the operating chair. But this time, a dentist put an unusual glass bulb filled with ether to the patient’s mouth. Abbott seemed to fall asleep, and a surgeon neatly sliced a tumor from his neck. When Abbott awoke, he said he felt only as if his neck had been scratched.
It was the first public demonstration of a medical epiphany, the birth of anesthesiology.
“One of the major innovations of medicine,” notes Susan Vassallo, a longtime hospital anesthesiologist, standing in the surgical amphitheater that became known as the Ether Dome. “This changed darkness to light.”
Until that moment, surgery was brutish, a last-ditch maneuver to remove gangrenous or crushed limbs and diseased organs. If patients did not die of the pain or loss of blood, they were likely to do so from infection. Germs were unknown.
The silent witness — named Padihershef, for that was what an Egyptologist finally read in hieroglyphics on his coffin — was sent on tour to raise money for the new hospital. He returned to join a replica of the Apollo Belvedere, a famous marble statue in the Vatican Palace, in the operating room. Their presence signaled that surgery was a scholar’s occupation, according to Sarah Alger, director of Mass General’s medical history museum. Doctors wore formal frock coats during an operation and were expected to spend their afternoons pursuing intellectual hobbies.
The pair remain in the amphitheater, next to a vivid 2001 painting of Abbott’s historic procedure that corrected errors in an 1880s depiction. What transpired on that day was “not humbug,” his surgeon announced to the physicians watching from steep, curved rows of seats. The patient was discharged some seven weeks later. In the end, it was consumption that killed him.
Years of collateral drama followed. Several people bitterly vied for credit for “inventing” the use of ether; three met grim deaths, including the man who became a chloroform addict, threw acid at women he considered prostitutes and slit his femoral artery in prison.
The Ether Dome is still used by medical students as well as open to the curious public. It is a mecca of sorts for some.
“I feel I ought to take my shoes off,” says an anesthesiologist visiting from Philadelphia. “I am standing on holy ground.”
Doug Struck is a former Washington Post foreign correspondent. He teaches journalism and is based in Boston.
Tony Luong is a photographer based in Boston, where he is surrounded by amazing scientific discoveries and a little too much sports.
Dean Wilson arrived in Louisiana from San Sebastian, Spain, with a bow and arrows, a spear and several hooks. His ultimate destination was the Amazon. But he first needed to get used to humidity, so he stopped in the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland forest in North America. His plan was to stay a few months.
The 24-year-old Wilson never left. He became a commercial fisherman and created Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting the land. Thirty-five years later, it’s a place he knows as well as he knows himself. And as he steers his aluminum bateau through a flooded put-in south of Baton Rouge, he’s already grieving it.
The basin is like a bathtub, Wilson says, collecting water that would otherwise flood an area stretching from from southwestern Louisiana to Mississippi. But the tub is filling up with dirt, sand and silt. Along with threats from logging and oil and gas drilling, the sedimentation is likely to lead to the basin’s destruction.
“If nothing changes, 50 years from now, this will all be hardwood forest,” he says. “The sea level is rising, and the coast is going to be gone.”
Atchafalaya, a bastion of Cajun culture, is the largest river swamp in the country and a vital habitat for migratory birds. The land is so damply verdant that it seems not for this world, which it soon won’t be given the rate at which acres of wetlands are disappearing.
Wilson cruises down unnaturally straight waterways dredged to accommodate barges. His engine cuts through birdsong, and a great blue heron takes flight. He points out an oil pumping station, all metal and sharp angles, rising out of the water in the shadow of tupelo trees.
He turns off the canal and plunges into the swamp. He navigates under branches strung with necklaces of Spanish moss, through carpets of water lilies and wild hyacinth as tall as the boat, and around cypress trees, some a century old, discolored by lichen. Salvinia is sprinkled like chartreuse confetti on the water’s surface. The water is the color of long-steeped green tea, brightened by the reflection of the cypress’s feathery emerald leaves. The occasional trumpet flower provides a dash of bright coral.
He pauses by a tree marked with a pink tag identifying crawfish traps and, in a voice still accented by the language of his youth, explains what is at stake. A barred owl perches above.
When the basin goes, so goes the crawfish. So goes the barred owl, and the region’s natural defenses from storm surges, and a rare and fragile ecosystem. In the distance, bullfrogs croak in a deep-bellied chorus, as if stuck in a bayou traffic jam. There is a reason magic — the Cajun werewolf rougarou, the banished princes-turned-frogs — is thought to lurk in these waters. The swamp seems endless and enchanted. But Wilson fears it is mortally wounded.
“Look at this,” he says, gesturing all around him. “There’s no other place on Earth you can make something like this. This is a treasure that can be created nowhere else on the planet.”
Jacqueline Kantor is a journalist based in New Orleans who covers sports, environment, culture, criminal justice and captivating stories of the South.
Emily Kask is a full-time freelance photojournalist and part-time swamp creature based in New Orleans.
Green Bank Observatory
You get to the Green Bank Observatory by driving into the high mountains of West Virginia, on winding roads through narrow valleys and verdant forests, and when you’re sure that you have reached the most remote place you’ve ever been in your life . . . you keep going. Green Bank waits in the very back of the backwoods.
Which is the point. The observatory is situated in a 13,000-square-mile federally regulated area called the National Radio Quiet Zone. Science requires silence around these parts.
Astronomers scrutinize the universe in different wavelengths, including visible light, X-rays and infrared. The nonprofit observatory at Green Bank deals in the long wavelengths we call radio, which can penetrate galactic dust and reveal things — such as the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy — that can’t be seen with optical astronomy. The telescopes needed to capture radio waves are huge. They’re our big eyes on the cosmos.
Green Bank was founded in the 1950s and retains some vintage buildings and historic radio antennae. The site is vast, with eight telescopes towering over tree-lined meadows. Five are still operational, including the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. At 485 feet in height, it’s taller than the Statue of Liberty and one of the largest movable objects on land anywhere on Earth, a tour guide explains.
Visitors must remain electromagnetically silent. You can’t use a digital camera, because the autofocus feature creates radio frequency interference. The tour bus here runs on diesel, which doesn’t require spark plugs. Even a tiny burst of radiation from a Fitbit can interfere with the astronomical business. The observatory uses a specially equipped, antennae-topped vehicle to patrol the nearby countryside nearby in search of rogue WiFi routers, cordless telephones or microwave ovens.
The tour passes the Howard E. Tatel telescope, which radio astronomer Frank Drake aimed in 1960 at two nearby sunlike stars. He hoped to detect transmissions from an alien civilization. And while he didn’t find anything, his effort inaugurated the field of SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
This little vale is almost heaven for science nerds. In the observatory’s science center, vivid exhibits explain the electromagnetic spectrum. Back outside, there’s a sequence of flags and informational signs that present a scale model of the solar system. The sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are relatively close together in front of the main research building, but then it’s a big jump to the Jupiter flag, a bigger jump still to Saturn, and so on, until you’re really covering some ground, feeling the breadth of the solar system before you reach Pluto.
It’s quiet in the Quiet Zone. But if you’re wandering the property, you might hear a whirring sound from the 20-meter telescope. Visible a few paces off the main road, it helps scientists track the motion of continents due to plate tectonics.
The telescope is remote controlled, and a visitor watching it pivot may instinctively think of it as sentient. Maybe it just caught a glimpse of something intriguing. Maybe it senses an alien invasion in the offing. Let’s all agree that it’s good to have these big contraptions on our side.
Joel Achenbach covers science and national news for The Washington Post. He has been a staff writer since 1990.
Michael S. Williamson is a staff photojournalist at The Washington Post and most at peace exploring America's lonely blue highways.
It was a seismic jolt that reverberated from Los Angeles to Oregon and ruptured nearly 300 miles of earth. San Francisco suffered the most damage, with burst gas mains fueling over 50 fires that incinerated 500 blocks. Even more than a century later, vestiges of the terrible temblor remain an hour’s drive northwest of the city — if you know what to look for.
Belle Philibosian is among the savviest observers. On the bucolic meadow path named for the forces that were unleashed — Earthquake Trail — the U.S. Geological Survey scientist points out the telltale features: troughs, ridges and valleys that follow a straight line. Amid the tranquility of Point Reyes National Seashore, all are signs of an active fault.
Once you’re schooled in geology, says Philibosian, who studies past quakes to predict future hazards, “you get a whole new appreciation for the landforms and the story that the land is telling you.”
Geologists got the education of their lives when two gigantic sheets of Earth’s rigid outer layer, the Pacific and North American plates, muscled past each other before dawn on April 18, 1906. In the aftermath, the scientists scoured the length of the fault for clues to explain the stunning wreckage. What they found laid the foundation for modern seismology.
Not for more than another half-century would their profession accept plate tectonics, the unifying theory that explains the planet’s ever-changing geophysical forces. But when they saw fissures appear along a straight line for miles on end — though probably not deep enough to swallow a cow, as one rancher back then told reporters eager for dramatic measures of magnitude — a mental lightbulb went off.
“Even without understanding that plate tectonics was driving faults all around the world,” Philibosian says, “the 1906 earthquake allowed scientists to start tying earthquakes to individual fault lines in the ground.”
That’s because they saw “blindingly obvious” features on the post-quake landscape that hadn’t been there before.
Any structures that straddled the San Andreas fault — which had been identified and named little more than a decade earlier — were suddenly cocked several feet sideways. The geologists inventoried roads, bridges, tunnels and pipes. Corrals that once held horses and cattle had gaps big enough to drive a semi through, as if a livestock-loving giant roaming the countryside had pulled fences apart.
Most traces of the 1906 quake now lie buried under roads, high-rises and other trappings of civilization. The Earthquake Trail is a rare public place where remnants of the rupture are still visible.
The terrain here continues to yield rich scientific insights, too. It has helped geologists determine that the San Andreas is the fastest-slipping fault along the plate boundary — and hardly the only one.
“Here in the Bay Area, you’re pretty much always close to a fault,” Philibosian says, framed by a ridge that hitched a ride, inch by inch over millennia, from about 100 miles south.
With no survivors of the last Big One still alive to share their memories, complacency can easily take over. “The Earthquake Trail keeps that memory alive,” she believes.
You just have to know what to look for.
Liza Gross is a writer based in Kensington, Calif., near several active faults. She plans to get an earthquake kit soon.
Talia Herman is an editorial photojournalist based in the San Francisco Bay area. She is a native Northern Californian.
Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania
The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania is a destination for time travel — a place to explore history on both geologic and human scales.
Once this was the shoreline of a wide, shallow sea, where giant mosses and 40-foot ferns flourished in a tropical climate. The ancestors of land animals waddled about on primitive legs, slick-skinned and sprawling.
Eons of tectonic bashing and bumping lifted the land as high as the Himalayas, then time and the elements wore it away. Encroaching ice sheets scoured the mountaintops. Water carved the plateau into a miles-long, thousand-foot gorge.
A record of the region’s turbulent past is still written on the canyon’s walls. The gravel and silt of the ancient seafloor became rippling layers of sandstone and shale. Prehistoric flora was supplanted by swaying birch, dark, dense hemlock and lustrous sugar maples. Those early animals evolved into the otters that today splash in Pine Creek and the eagles that nest in the cliffs.
Native Americans lived here for thousands of years, but it was the forces of a growing, rapacious nation that rapidly transformed the landscape more than geology had over millennia. In centuries-old white pines that covered the hillsides, settlers saw roof beams and ships’ masts. Hemlock trees were stripped bare, their chemical-rich bark turned to dye for leather workers. Railroad tracks were laid to supply the boom towns that sprang up around the timber industry.
It only took a few generations for boom to become bust. By the turn of 20th century, the forest was obliterated. The otters and trout vanished from the creek; deer fled the barren fields. What little wood remained provided quick kindling for sparks that flew from passing trains. Wildfires ravaged the denuded earth.
A different evolution then occurred, says Jim Hyland, who has lived the entirety of his 55 years in central Pennsylvania and manages what is now the surrounding Tioga State Forest. “We learned to think of these forests as something to appreciate, not just make a profit from.”
In 1905, Pennsylvania established its first forestry department and began to buy up the blighted land around the canyon. During the depths of the Great Depression, young men employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees and plotted hiking trails. Pine Creek was made one of America’s first “wild and scenic rivers,” and slowly newts, eels and weasel-like fishers returned to its banks. The abandoned train tracks became a path for hikers and bicyclists.
Yet the area’s human history remains evident to those who know to look for it. A former logging site, Tiadaghton, has become a dreamy riverside campground; from its open, grassy expanse visitors can listen to the croaking conversations of toads and watch the courtship rituals of red-winged blackbirds. The remains of an old CCC latrine stand amid a meadow of tiny, violet flowers called bluets.
Even the trees tell stories. Occasionally, hikers will come across a row of pines or maples growing in a too-straight line. These, Hyland says, are the product of seeds planted decades ago — a long-ago forester’s gift to the future, another means of traveling through time.
Sarah Kaplan is a Washington Post reporter who covers news from around the nation and across the universe.
Jabin Botsford is a Washington Post staff photographer who covers the White House. He enjoys hiking, camping and instant film.
Scopes Monkey Trial
Almost a century later, the judge’s bench is the same. The rows of honey-colored spectator chairs are the same. And the arguments, the ones that lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan thundered at each other during a trial that riveted the nation, are certainly the same.
“Darwinists say you can believe in evolution and in the divine creation at the same time,” Bryan tells jurors in a drawl as smooth and rich as a glass of Tennessee whiskey. “Well, Darwinists may believe in the creator, but they don’t believe He created man.”
“Soon, soon,” Darrow warns his antagonist, “you will set Catholic against Protestant, Baptist against Lutheran, and then try to force your own religion upon the minds of men.”
Every summer, the red-bricked, clock-towered Rhea County Courthouse again plays host to what long ago became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. It’s a uniquely relevant reenactment given how the debate over government’s role in science and religion roars on.
“You hear the ghosts echo in the walls as you stand in there and say those very words that Bryan and Darrow exchanged,” says Rick Dye, a local who has repeatedly played the skeptical, suspendered Darrow.
Here’s how it all began. In 1925, Tennessee passed a law prohibiting its public schools from teaching human evolution. George Rappleyea, who ran a coal company in the small central town of Dayton, learned that the American Civil Liberties Union was offering to cover the legal fees of a teacher willing to test the statute. In a monumental public relations blunder, he viewed the offer as a way to draw attention to Dayton.
But he ran into problems when he failed to recruit the high school’s biology teacher. So Rappleyea turned to John Thomas Scopes, a recent college graduate and occasional substitute teacher. Scopes thought the law was bad and agreed to challenge it. Darrow, already a famous attorney, agreed to defend him, while Bryan, an equally prominent statesman and orator, would represent Tennessee.
Rappleyea was elated; he figured the faceoff would bring tourists and notoriety. The tourists were fleeting, though. The notoriety — for better or worse, but mostly for worse — has lingered.
Starting with newspaper coverage of the case that year, with dispatches’ frequent mentions of “yokels,” through the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind,” which turned locals into an angry mob, all the way up to a 2005 Daily Show bit labeled “Evolution Schmevolution,” outsiders have controlled most of the narrative. Since 1988, the reenactment has been the town’s way of wresting back some of its history.
Most performances during Dayton’s Scopes Festival draw a packed courtroom. And as the two central characters spar over facts vs. faith, everybody scooches forward on their seat to hear.
“Can you not answer my question?” Darrow presses at one point, having actually called Bryan to the stand as a Bible expert. “You cannot judge the length of my answer by the length of your question,” Bryan retorts.
The jury always returns its verdict in just nine minutes, convicting Scopes. Which is when he speaks for the first time.
“Your honor, I feel I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute,” he declares.
A.C. Shilton, a Tennessee-based journalist and farmer, splits her time between investigative work, lifestyle pieces and chickens.
Stacy Kranitz is a documentary photographer based in the Appalachian region of the United States.
Ever stare at the moon and dream about going there? Ever imagine being the 13th man — or the first woman or kid — to walk on its desolate surface? Given the smarts, connections or money needed, it’s just a fantasy, right?
But don’t dismay! There’s always 35°18’22.0”N, 111°30’19.4”W on Earth.
This site in central Arizona doesn’t look like much. (Admittedly, the moon doesn’t either.) The setting is monochromatic, 14 acres of basaltic cinders marked by a simple wire fence and surrounded by ponderosa pine forest. Craters pock the terrain. Bizarrely, they’re positioned exactly as they are in quadrant II-P-6-1 of the Mare Tranquillitatis. (That’s Latin for the Sea of Tranquility, as any moon fan knows.)
Here, a group of pilots trained in the late 1960s and early 1970s for the Apollo missions that took them to the moon. At Cinder Lake, as it’s called, they got crash courses in lunar driving and geology so that they’d know exactly how to maneuver in space and what they’d be seeing, documenting and collecting for the scientists back home. Their military background hadn’t prepared them to operate a rover, much less scoop up football-sized rocks while wearing enormous, insulated gloves. And they needed a lot of practice. A tool accidentally ripping into their spacesuits could have had a catastrophic ending more than 225,000 miles from Earth.
To assist with the training, engineers with the U.S. Geological Survey meticulously created this simulated moonscape a dozen miles northeast of Flagstaff. Between July and October 1967, they dragged an enormous tractor-mounted rake across the land to level it and rid it of vegetation. They next used surveying equipment to identify the center point of each crater needed. Then an explosives specialist and backhoe helped them bury precise amounts of dynamite, fertilizer and fuel oil to ensure each crater would be the correct depth and width.
The explosives were ignited in three stages to mimic the timeline of crater formation on the moon. One-hundred-forty-three in all, up to 58 feet in diameter and as much as 12 feet deep. It was a booming success.
The location was chosen specifically because of its surface, which is covered with the dark gray, marble-size volcanic remains of a nearby 11th-century eruption. “The cinders were thought to be representative of what astronauts would encounter on the surface of the moon,” explains archaeologist Dagmar Galvan of the Coconino National Forest’s Flagstaff Ranger District, who’s giving tours of the site this year in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo landing.
Yet the first astronaut to walk on the moon, seconds after uttering his famous “one small step for man” line, had some disappointing news. “The surface is fine and powdery,” Neil Armstrong told NASA.
Yes, Cinder Lake missed the mark a bit.
There are even more discrepancies today. At Crater Field No. 1, decades of erosion have taken their toll, as have wildfire and flooding. The shallowest craters have disappeared.
A vivid imagination still goes a long way here, however. Squint hard at the stark surroundings. Lumber forward in pretend space boots. Take a small bunny hop. You might just think you’re on the you know what.
Erin Rooney Doland is a professional writer based out of an RV traversing North America.
Caitlin O'Hara, a photojournalist based in the Sonoran Desert, documents migration stories and is a founding member of the Juntos Coöp.
Brookhaven Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider
Four Sundays each year, a sprawling Energy Department facility on Long Island opens its gates to the public and turns part of its 5,000 acres into a gleeful science fair. Demonstrators freeze flowers in liquid nitrogen, fire off bottle rockets and use bell-jar vacuums to inflate marshmallow Peeps to monstrous proportions.
Yet the main draw for the crowds visiting Brookhaven National Laboratory is always its monumental research operations.
There’s the National Synchrotron Light Source II, a building where electrons helping scientists probe the nature of proteins zoom through a ring big enough to encircle Yankee Stadium. Next door, the laboratories of the gleaming Center for Functional Nanomaterials tailor substances atom by atom. And then comes the pièce de résistance, a $600 million marvel of engineering buried in a looping dirt berm 2.4 miles long.
Behold the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.
RHIC is the only operational particle collider in the United States. Physicists use it to conduct atomic demolition derbies so energetic, naysayers feared that the machine’s activity would rip open a mini black hole in New York. It instead switched on in 2000 without incident. Up close, the only thing it threatens to warp is a sense of scale.
Underground, RHIC features the gentle curve of a Washington Metro tunnel. But where the subway track would run are two tubes thick as tree trunks. In them, 1,740 supercooled electromagnets propel hundreds of trillions of gold nuclei to 99.995 percent the speed of light.
These twin beams move in opposite directions around the loop. Each nucleus completes 80,000 laps per second. And when the particles crash — there are six locations where the beams can cross — their familiar bindings of protons and neutrons break down. (Researchers usually collide gold nuclei, which have had their electrons stripped away. But they have smashed uranium, hydrogen and other elements, too.)
Gene Van Buren, a nuclear physicist at Brookhaven, puts this in context. “The kind of collision that’s happening in this experiment is happening throughout nature around us,” he says. RHIC’s trick is controlling exactly where this occurs.
Temperatures at the moment of impact flare to 250,000 times those found in the center of the sun. Nuclei melt and spew their guts, forming a hot soup of subatomic particles called quarks and gluons. Scientists theorize this plasma existed a microsecond after the Big Bang.
Almost as soon as it’s made, the plasma fizzles into a spray of exotic particles. “It lasts, as the interesting stuff that we want to study, for about a thousandth of a billionth of a billionth of a second,” Van Buren says. In a three-story building atop the site, a giant detector, 1,200 tons of metal and wire, records the aftermath.
When the collider is active, scientists in the building retreat behind a concrete shield wall several feet thick. Summer visitors at Brookhaven can approach because that’s when RHIC is shut down for maintenance. They gape at the detector, even descend into the tunnel — witnesses to where physicists re-create, for the splittest of seconds, an infant universe smaller than an atom.
Ben Guarino is a Washington Post reporter who covers federal science, tiny critters and big ideas.
Biz Herman is a New York-based photojournalist and a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley.
Collinsville, Ill., is some 6,3oo miles from Giza, Egypt. But the two cities aren’t as far apart as they might seem.
Giza has the Great Pyramid. Collinsville has Monk’s Mound.
Sure, people have been hanging around Giza a lot longer — as long ago as the 26th century B.C. On the outskirts of what is now East St. Louis, settlement barely dates back a millennium.
Yet the metropolis that flourished here in those days became the biggest and most sophisticated pre-Columbian civilization north of Mexico, an urban center of more than 20,000 people that spanned six square miles.
Monk’s Mound is what they left behind.
The 100-foot-high earthwork, the largest on the continent, is the centerpiece of an ancient city known as Cahokia. Archaeologist Julie Zimmermann, who grew up just an hour south, never saw the site until after graduate school.
“I looked up and went, ‘Holy s---, that’s a big mound,’ ” she remembers. “Would you like to go see the pyramids of Egypt? I would. And you can — right here.”
She was only half-joking. The base of Monk’s Mound covers 14 acres, about the same as the Great Pyramid. But unlike the mummy-filled Egyptian wonder, Monk’s was no tomb.
Post pits excavated by archaeologists are believed to have been the base for a 98-foot temple that sat at the mound’s apex. Deeper down and further out, jewelry and tools were discovered — made from copper mined near Lake Superior, flint from Oklahoma, mica from the Carolinas and seashells from the Gulf of Mexico.
Bodies were found in some of the 120 smaller surrounding mounds, but many of those locations suggested mass burials of men and women, who had been neatly laid on cedar litters placed on a bed of flat beads made from shells.
Some bodies appear to have been sacrificed.
“There is evidence of human sacrifice here on a scale not seen north of Mexico,” says Zimmermann, a fast-talking, silver-haired dynamo who has dedicated much of her career to the sprawling site.
Such clues, she says, signal that Cahokia was not just a center of commerce or politics but a religious capital, a sort of Native American version of Mecca, to which different tribes sojourned from more than 1,000 miles away. In A.D. 1250, it was larger than London.
But as the soil, timber and wildlife slowly gave out beneath the demands of such a large settlement, the population declined. The mounds slumped. By the time French missionaries arrived in 1735, little of the past was left. The name Monk’s Mound reflects their arrival rather than the importance of the work’s creators.
So back to the comparison with Giza. Just like the Great Pyramid, Cahokia has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, a label that has helped in recent preservation and restoration efforts.
Visitors climb 154 steps to the top, which affords a nice view of the St. Louis skyline. Yet as the wind overpowers the hum of traffic from an adjacent highway, it’s possible to ignore the modern world and imagine the ancient one, vibrant and sophisticated, that once thrived on the plain below.
Tony Rehagen is a journalist based in St. Louis who writes about history, sports, crime, politics and the arts.
Daniel Acker is a freelance photographer and drone operator based outside Chicago in rural Illinois.
Delmarva’s Wintering Birds
The snow geese arrive every fall by the tens of thousands, great, honking flocks of brilliant white birds with black-tipped wings. By the time they set down, they’ve flown thousands of miles from the Arctic reaches of Canada and Alaska to winter with countless other travelers on the Eastern Shore. Regal tundra swans forage next to tiny, green-winged teal. Bobbing buffleheads mingle with northern shovelers.
The sight is spectacular, the sound astonishing and the experience surreal to someone experiencing it for the first time.
Even today, less than 100 miles from the nation’s capital, the Delmarva Peninsula remains one of the best places in the world to witness the mysteries of bird migration, as well as the consequences of wildlife management laws and practices.
“For many of the waterfowl that breed in North America, that’s where they all go,” says Geoffrey LeBaron, who directs the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count program that surveys wintering birds across the country.
The waterfowl concentrate in the peninsula’s national wildlife refuges — Bombay Hook and Prime Hook on the Delaware Bay, Blackwater on the Chesapeake Bay — and on Assateague Island and wherever there are shallow ponds and protected habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages water levels in its refuge fields to optimize foraging conditions so the birds can survive the cold and fatten up before their flight back to the Arctic.
Sometimes these gyrating masses erupt in a squawking panic — a signal that a bald eagle is on the hunt. The raptors almost disappeared from the Lower 48 because the pesticide DDT weakened their eggshells, but thanks to conservationist Rachel Carson and the Endangered Species Act, eagles, osprey, pelicans and peregrine falcons have made magnificent recoveries. Blackwater now has one of the highest concentrations of breeding bald eagles on the East Coast, and their population surges throughout the peninsula when eagles that breed farther north stop by for the warmer weather and duck buffet.
To keep swans, geese, ducks and shorebirds coming to Delmarva, LeBaron advises visitors to buy a duck stamp. “It’s something everybody can do, almost like a no-brainer, to help protect wetlands and waterfowl,” he says. (According to Fish and Wildlife, the Federal Duck Stamp program has raised more than $1 billion for migratory bird conservation since its inception during the Great Depression.)
Snow geese and eagles are the easiest way to start identifying winter birds, but anyone with a pair of binoculars can find other species to appreciate. Great rafts of sea ducks called scoters float along open water next to loons and cormorants. Migrating hawks converge on the peninsula’s tip as they swoop south. And as many as 10,000 monarch butterflies, traveling a similar flyway, have been counted there on a single fall day in the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.
Come spring, that refuge will be Delmarva’s meet-and-greet point for returning songbirds and more, all puffing for breath after crossing the mouth of the Chesapeake on their journey north. But that’s for another season.
Laura Helmuth is the health and science editor at The Washington Post and an avid birder.
Mark Hendricks is a writer, author and conservation photojournalist specializing in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Atop a low ridge in the heart of Oregon’s Blue Mountains, Michael McWilliams pushes through brittle branches and scrambles over toppled logs and decay. Bare trunks tower overhead, but the U.S. Forest Service pathologist focuses low. He’s searching for something that lurks underfoot, hidden despite its immense size.
A sickly fir tree is where he finally stops and kneels. He begins raking at its roots with the curved adz blade of his wood-handled Pulaski. The tool clinks and scrapes, revealing a cream-colored film beneath the bark. It’s an inches-long glimpse of what is likely to be the world’s largest single living organism, a fungus thousands of years old yet still capable of strangling an entire forest.
“Yeah, baby,” McWilliams says, scraping away. “This is a tree killer.”
Dubbed the “Humongous Fungus,” the honey mushroom officially classified as Armillaria ostoyae spreads underground through trees’ root systems. It fruits an edible honey-brown cap just a few weeks each year, typically after the first fall rains. The rest of the year it’s elusive, its presence subterranean.
But what a presence that is: Researchers estimate that the colony here covers 3.7 square miles and may weigh a collective 35,000 tons.
“If you can expand your perception of what a mushroom is,” McWilliams says, “you can see it everywhere.”
Another Forest Service scientist first noticed the widespread die-off of local tree stands in 1988. Greg Whipple linked the problem to armillaria, then worked with others to map samples across hundreds of acres. The teams eventually confirmed that many shared the same DNA.
Whipple, now retired, remembers how his early attempts to limit the damage by clearing out infected areas drew death threats. Timber wars were raging between loggers and environmentalists, upending federal forest management in the Pacific Northwest.
“It was my lesson into politics,” he says.
Decades later, the killer fungus carries on, growing 1-to-3 feet a year. In satellite images of the Malheur National Forest in Eastern Oregon, rusty streaks of dead canopy and the pale, crisscrossed skeletons of downed trees now litter the infestation areas.
Researchers believe part of the colony could date to 6600 B.C. “It’s one of those things that makes you realize mankind is pretty insignificant,” Whipple says. “You realize just how small of a blip we are on the landscape.”
Root disease kills more trees in this region than bugs or beetles, but it moves slowly, picking winners and losers over generations. The fungus remakes the forest as it expands, choking off fir or pine while sparing more tolerant larch. Stunted saplings turn orange as the fungus takes hold. Trees often keel over to reveal roots completely eaten away.
Clouds collect along the ridge as McWilliams scouts out another sample. Rain begins to patter lightly on his hard-hat. With a pocketknife, he pops the bark off a dead fir. He carves out a thick slice of fungus, fattened on destruction, and rubs it between his fingers.
“It loves this area,” he says. “It has everything it needs.”
Jacob Jones works as a freelance writer in Eastern Washington, covering the people and policies shaping the Northwest.
Eirik Johnson is a Seattle-based photographer and author of "PINE," an ode to the secrets and messages in tree carvings.
About this story
Design and development by Vanessa Gregorchik. Graphics by Tim Meko. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Audio editing by Maggie Penman. Copy editing by Wayne Lockwood. Design editing by Suzette Moyer and Matthew Callahan. Project editing and production by Susan Levine.
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