7 Giant Machines That Changed the World—And 1 That Might

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

From a 17-mile-long particle accelerator to a football-field–sized space observatory, here are seven massive machines that have made an equally huge impact on how we build, how we observe our universe, and how we lift rockets into space. We've also included a bonus machine: a technological marvel-to-be that may be just as influential once it's completed.

1. LARGE HADRON COLLIDER

Large Hadron Collider
Carlo Fachini, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator located at CERN outside of Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest machine in the world: It has a circumference of almost 17 miles and took around a decade to build. The tubes of the LHC are a vacuum; superconducting magnets guide and accelerate two high-energy particle beams, which are moving in opposite directions, to near-light-speed. When the beams collide, scientists use the data to find the answers to some of the most basic questions of physics and the laws that govern the universe we live in.

Since the LHC started up in 2008, scientists have made numerous groundbreaking discoveries, including finding the once-theoretical Higgs boson particle—a.k.a. the "God" particle—which helps give other particles mass. Scientists had been chasing the Higgs boson for five decades. The discovery illuminates the early development of the universe, including how particles gained mass after the Big Bang. Scientists are already working on the LHC's successor, which will be three times its size and seven times more powerful.

2. CRAWLER-TRANSPORTER ROCKET MOVERS

Built in 1965, NASA's crawler-transporters are two of the largest vehicles ever constructed: They weigh 2400 tons each and burn 150 gallons of diesel per mile. In contrast, the average semi truck gets roughly 6.5 miles per gallon. The vehicles' first job was to move Saturn V rockets—which took us to the moon and measured 35 stories tall when fully constructed—from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest single-room building in the world) to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The 4.2-mile trip was a slow one; the transporters traveled at a rate of 1 mph to ensure the massive rockets didn't topple over. Without a vehicle to move rockets from the spot they were stacked to the launch pad, we never could have gotten off the ground, much less to the moon.

After our moon missions, the crawler-transporters were adapted to service the Space Shuttle program, and moved the shuttles from 1981 to 2003. Since the retirement of the orbiters, these long-serving machines are once again being repurposed to transport NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS), which, at 38 stories tall, will be the biggest rocket ever constructed when it's ready, hopefully in a few years (the timeline is in flux due to budgetary issues).

3. NATIONAL IGNITION FACILITY

National Ignition Facility (NIF) target chamber
Lawrence Livermore National Security, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Three football fields could fit inside the National Ignition Facility, which holds the largest, most energetic, and most precise laser in the world (it also has the distinction of being the world's largest optical instrument). NIF—which took about a decade to build and opened in 2009—is located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Its lasers are used to create conditions not unlike those within the cores of stars and giant planets, which helps scientists to gain understanding about these areas of the universe. The NIF is also being used to pursue the goal of nuclear fusion. If we can crack the code for this reaction that powers stars, we'll achieve unlimited clean energy for our planet.

4. BERTHA THE TUNNEL BORER

When Seattle decided it needed a giant tunnel to replace an aging highway through the middle of the city, the city contracted with Hitachi Zosen Corporation to build the biggest tunnel boring machine in the world to do the job. The scope of Bertha's work had no precedent in modern-day digging, given the dense, abrasive glacial soil and bedrock it had to chew through.

In 2013, Bertha—named after Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle's first female mayor—was tasked with building a tunnel that would be big enough to carry four lanes of traffic (a two-lane, double-decker road). Bertha needed to carve through 1.7 miles of rock, and just 1000 feet in, the 57-foot, 6559-ton machine ran into a steel pipe casing that damaged it. Many predicted that Bertha was doomed, but after a massive, on-the-spot repair operation by Hitachi Zosen that took a year-and-a-half, the borer was up and running again.

In April 2017, Bertha completed its work, and engineers started the process of dismantling it; its parts will be used in future tunnel boring machines. Bertha set an example for what is possible in future urban tunnel work—but it's unlikely that tunnel boring machines will get much bigger than Bertha because of the sheer weight of the machine and the amount of soil it can move at once. Bertha's tunnel is scheduled to open in 2019.

5. INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION

international space station
NASA

The international space station is a highly efficient machine, equipped with instrumentation and life support equipment, that has kept humans alive in the inhospitable environment of low-Earth orbit since November 2, 2000. It's the biggest satellite orbiting the Earth made by humans. The major components were sent into space over a two-year period, but construction has slowly continued over the last decade, with astronauts adding the Columbus science laboratory and Japanese science module. The first module, Zarya, was just 41.2 feet by 13.5 feet; now, the ISS is 356 feet by 240 feet, which is slightly larger than a football field. The station currently has about 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume the crew can move about in. That's about the same area as a Boeing 747 (though much of the ISS's space is taken up by equipment). The U.S.'s solar panels are as large as eight basketball courts.

From the space station, scientists have made such important discoveries as what extended zero-G does to the human body, where cosmic rays come from, and how protein crystals can be used to treat cancer. Though NASA expects the most modern modules of the ISS to be usable well into the 2030s, by 2025 the agency may begin "transitioning" much of its ISS operations—and costs—to the private sector [PDF] with an eye on expanding the commercial potential of space.

6. LIGO GRAVITATIONAL WAVE DETECTOR

The Laser Inferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually made up of four different facilities—two laboratories and two detectors located 2000 miles apart, in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors, which took about five years to build and were inaugurated in 1999, are identical L-shaped vacuum chambers that are about 2.5 miles long and operate in unison. The mission of these machines is to detect ripples in the fabric of spacetime known as gravitational waves. Predicted in 1915 by Einstein's theory of general relativity, gravitational waves were entirely theoretical until September 2015, when LIGO detected them for the first time. Not only did this provide further confirmation of general relativity, it opened up entirely new areas of research such as gravitational wave astronomy. The reason the two detectors are so far from each other is to reduce the possibility of false positives; both facilities must detect a potential gravitational wave before it is investigated.

7. ANTONOV AN-225 MRIYA PLANE

Antonov An-225 in Paramaribo
Andrew J. Muller, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Russians originally had a rival to the U.S. Space Shuttle program: a reusable winged spacecraft of their own called the Buran—and in the 1980s, they developed the AN-225 Mriya in order to transport it. With a wingspan the size of the Statue of Liberty, a 640-ton weight, six engines, and the ability to lift into the air nearly a half-million pounds, it's the longest and heaviest plane ever built. Mriya first flew in 1988, and since the Buran was mothballed in 1990 after just one flight (due to the breakup of the Soviet Union rather than the plane's capabilities), the AN-225 has only been used sparingly.

The monster plane has inspired new ideas. In 2017, Airspace Industry Corporation of China signed an agreement with Antonov, the AN-225's manufacturer, to built a fleet of aircraft based on the AN-225's design that would carry commercial satellites on their backs and launch them into space. Currently, virtually all satellites are launched from rockets. Meanwhile, Stratolaunch, a company overseen by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is building a plane that will be wider (but not longer) than Mriya. The giant plane will carry a launch vehicle headed for low-Earth orbit.

BONUS: 10,000-YEAR CLOCK

This forward-thinking project, funded by Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, focuses on reminding people about their long-term impact on the world. Instead of a traditional clock measuring hours, minutes, and seconds, the Clock of the Long Now measures times in years and centuries. The clock, which will be built inside a mountain on a plot of land in western Texas owned by Bezos, will tick once per year, with a century hand that advances just once every 100 years. The cuckoo on the clock will emerge just once per millennium. Construction began on the clock in early 2018. When this massive clock is completed—timeline unknown—it will be 500 feet high. What will be the impact of this one? Only the people of the 120th century will be able to answer that question.

Facebook Stored Millions of Passwords in Plain Text. Here's How to Change Yours

iStock.com/courtneyk
iStock.com/courtneyk

If you're concerned about online security, you may have already reconsidered your relationship with Facebook. The social networking giant has earned a reputation for mishandling users' data and leaving them vulnerable to hacking. Now there's a new reason to reassess your profile: As KrebsOnSecurity reports, Facebook has been storing passwords in plain text since 2012, meaning they were easily readable and searchable for years for those with access to Facebook's internal workings. Any users should change their passwords as soon as possible.

Over the last seven years, between 200 million and 600 million users had their passwords made vulnerable by the security flaw. The passwords were saved in Facebook's internal password management system in plain text that required no decoding to read. According to Facebook, "hundreds of millions of Facebook Lite [its app for low-power-usage devices] users, tens of millions additional Facebook users, and tens of thousands of Instagram users" were affected.

Tech companies normally encrypt the user passwords they store in their databases. Without encryption, anyone who has access to those files can read that sensitive information without facing any barriers. Facebook's security issue left passwords open to up to 20,000 company employees, and according to KrebsOnSecurity, "access logs showed some 2000 engineers or developers made approximately 9 million internal queries for data elements that contained plain-text user passwords."

Facebook claims to have fixed the problem and plans to reach out to every user who was affected. Because there's no sign that the passwords were leaked or mishandled, the company won't require users to change their passwords. But given Facebook's reputation for security, all users should probably change their passwords as a precaution.

To change your Facebook password, go to Settings and then Security and Login. Go to the Change Password option under Login and select Edit. From there, you'll be able to set a new password after entering your current one. Here are some tips for developing a strong password.

[h/t KrebsOnSecurity]

7 Smart Cleaning Devices to Help Keep Your Allergies at Bay

iStock
iStock

Just because you hate cleaning doesn’t mean you need to live in filth. You may not be able to buy a robot maid straight out of The Jetsons (yet), but there are plenty of automated ways to clean your house, if you’re willing to shell out a few extra dollars for the joy of watching a machine do your work for you. Here are seven pieces of technology that can help you combat dust, dirt, and allergens at home without lifting a finger.

1. iRobot Roomba

A robot vacuum skirts the wall of a room with wooden floors.
iRobot

The Roomba has long been the gold standard in robotic vacuuming. While it may not be as effective as the human hand at getting into tight corners and over thick rugs, there’s no better way to clean the entire house while you sit on the couch watching television. You can preschedule cleanings so that your handy helper tidies up while you’re at work, and acoustic sensors help the robot flag particularly dirty patches of floor for extra attention. Newer versions are compatible with the Amazon Echo, meaning you can vacuum your home without even pressing a button. The higher-end models offer even more features: Roomba 900 series maps out its route through your home in the iRobot app to give you precise data on where it cleaned and what areas it spent the most time on, while the Roomba i7+ can empty its own dust bin.

Buy it on on Amazon starting at $270. In addition to Amazon, you can get the budget Roomba 675 from Best Buy, Walmart, or the retailers below:

2. Hoover REACT Vacuum

A Hoover React vacuum
Hoover

Hoover's REACT series of vacuums takes the upright to new heights. Outfitted with FloorSense technology, these smart vacuums know when you move from carpet to hard wood to tile, and can adjust the brush speed accordingly: On carpet, it'll use a faster brush speed to lift out stubborn dirt; when you move from the bedroom to the kitchen, the brush will slow down to prevent dirt debris from spreading. The REACT line is also Bluetooth compatible, so you can connect to the Hoover app in order to customize your FloorSense settings and monitor your machine's filter. The icing on the cake (for the pet-loving Mental Floss staff) is its superior suction and sealed allergen system that banishes pet hair from your upholstery and floor (at least temporarily).

Buy it on Amazon ($174), Walmart ($174), or from one of the retailers below:

3. Braava Jet

A Braava jet mops a hardwood floor while a dog looks on.
The Braava Jet 240

While iRobot’s foray into automated mopping isn’t as advanced as its vacuuming products, the Braava jet mopping ‘bot, first released in 2016, makes a decent pass at cleaning kitchens, bathrooms, and wood floors. Designed for any hard surface, the Braava 240 comes with three different settings—wet mopping, damp sweeping, and dry sweeping—and can be controlled using the iRobot app. The petite cube vibrates stains and dirt away using disposable pads ($8 for a 10-pack or $14 for two reusable pads) specific to the cleaning setting. The pricier, newer model, the Braava 380t, has just two settings—dry or a wet—but it can mop for up to 150 minutes on a single charge and is compatible with Swiffer and other cleaning cloths.

Buy it on Amazon ($170), Walmart ($185), or at one of the retailers below:

4. Everybot

A robot mop navigates around a planter in a living room.
Everybot

Funded on Indiegogo in 2017, the Korean-made Everybot packs more power than the Braava. It’s a little bigger and can’t be controlled by an app, but its dual-spinning mops are designed to tackle spills and tough stains across the house with one touch of a button. It comes equipped with six different cleaning patterns as well as the ability to control its direction manually with a remote control. The mopping pads can be thrown in the washing machine or scrubbed by hand. It can also function as a duster: The robot has a handle on top, and you can grab it and run it over any surface, including windows.

Buy it on Amazon for $304 or from one of the retailers below:

5. Litter-Robot

A cat sits inside the mouth of the Litter-Robot.
Litter-Robot

No one likes a full litter box—not even your cat. So unless you’ve trained your cat to go in the toilet, you could probably use a litter box robot to keep your scooping duties to a minimum. The Litter-Robot looks a little like a kitty rocket ship and can save you some major smells. When the cat steps on the sensor upon entering the box, it triggers a countdown clock to the next cleaning cycle. Seven minutes later, when your cat is long gone, the orb-like litter box rotates, sifting the waste down into a filtered storage bin below. You only need to empty out the waste bin every few days as it fills up, and there’s never a smell—perfect for a house with multiple cats. Some reviewers note that it cuts down on their litter-and-dust triggered allergies, too.

Buy it from Litter-Robot for $449.

6. Awair Air Quality Monitor

Awair air quality monitor
Awair

Get to the root of your airborne allergy problem by cleaning up the air you breathe. Awair tracks the five main factors contributing to the air quality in your home—temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, chemicals, and dust—and provides recommendations for changes you can make in order to improve your air quality. Awair is also compatible with Amazon Echo, Next, and IFTTT, which means it can direct your smart switch to turn on your humidifier if the humidity level drops, turn on the AC if your home gets too hot, or notify you if carbon dioxide levels rise. (The company also makes a smaller version called the Awair Glow that doubles as a smart plug.)

Buy it on Amazon for $163 or from one of the retailers below:

7. GermGuardian 4-In-1 Air Cleaning System

GermGuardian smart air filtration system
GermGuardian

Outfitted with a True HEPA filter, this air cleaning system from GermGuardian captures 99.97 percent of allergens and asthma triggers, including pet dander and pollen, as well as reduces airborne bacteria. Use the corresponding app to monitor and control your home’s air quality from anywhere.

Buy it on Amazon ($148), Walmart ($144), or one of the retailers below:

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