A Machinery of Mirrors

Behind the fence of the top secret Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California, scientists have just finished building the most powerful laser in the world. The National Ignition Facility (NIF), as it is called, is a magnificently wasteful piece of engineering at the very frontier of the possible. I think of it as America’s answer to the pyramids. The NIF enables scientists to play with the powers of the gods, creating conditions found inside stars and nuclear explosions half a mile away from a suburban housing development. It was built at a cost of about $4 billion, and yet hardly anyone in America has even heard of it. Lavishly funded by Congress, profiled in the unread science sections of the nation’s newspapers, investigated by countless commissions, spied upon by the nation’s enemies, it is hidden in plain view. What is it for? people ask when I tell them about it. As we shall see, this is not a simple question […]

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