MUCH OF MODERN SCIENCE lives in laboratories, those distinctive structures that house the most particular means for testing our ideas. Such places have the exceptional ability to isolate problems, to control and to vary inputs — temperature, air pressure, speed, light, or sound — and then to precisely record the results. They are places where science can go on without us (for a time). The rooms can go dark, but science still happens: Cells divide and grow; lasers pulse; elementary particles hurtle through magnetic fields; molecules jiggle along paths that might lead to life. So it is in these images that we find scenes of "potential energy" culled from a collective pursuit to understand the world. The scientists have gone home, but the ideas remain, manifested in experiments, moving autonomously in the darkness toward a revelation.
AS THE SALK INSTITUTE has grown, a scarcity of space has pushed equipment out of labs and into the interstitial areas that lie between main floors, like these incubators from Martin Hetzer's molecular and cell biology lab, which are strung along a maintenance corridor. The incubators encourage rapid growth of bacteria by heating and shaking them in solution. Jessica Talamas, who works in Hetzer's lab, is using them to grow colonies of E. coli bacteria modified to mass-produce a protein that is difficult to isolate using traditional methods. Talamas uses those proteins to study how materials move across the nuclear membranes of cells. Support spaces like these will soon be even more crowded, thanks in part to a new expansion of biophotonics research at the Institute. Biophotonics uses all the various wavelengths of light to study and manipulate biological materials. This biophotonics experiment uses a powerful automated microscope to capture movie-like, high-resolution images of laser-illuminated human cancer cells as they grow and divide for 72 hours in a climate-controlled Plexiglas container that mimics conditions within the body. The images could give researchers a deeper understanding of how the cells function.
THE STANFORD LINEAR ACCELERATOR CENTER (SLAC) has been a cornerstone of high-energy physics for more than 40 years, with this control room as its nexus. The facility's long history makes the room an exercise in anachronism. Aged machinery and consoles stand side by side with modern desktop computers; old-fashioned clipboards hang alongside flat-panel LCD displays.
SLAC'S LATEST ADDITION, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), will use the world's most powerful X-ray laser to snap freeze-frame images of individual atoms and molecules, ushering in a new era of precision investigation for chemistry, biology, and condensed-matter physics. Still under construction, the LCLS won't come online until 2009 or 2010. At present its yellow equipment stands and copper cooling pipes stretch down the length of a massive underground hallway awaiting the installation of electromagnets.
EXPERIMENTS AT SLAC typically run day and night, for years on end. The control room, normally staffed continuously by at least two workers, was devoid of researchers for perhaps the first time in SLAC's history — the accelerator had been temporarily shut down for maintenance.
NICO, A ROBOT BUILT BY BRIAN SCASSELLATI and his colleagues, stands still in its night-quieted home. The skein of wires descending from Nico's metal body connects to a rack of 12 computers that control its movements in response to sights and sounds. In this room Nico is learning social skills. The robot can identify and visually track faces, and can modify its own behavior in response to verbal cues, such as words and intonation. It can even grasp the rules of simple games like catch or tag by watching people play. Last year Nico became the first robot ever to recognize itself in a mirror. By creating a robot that responds predictably yet also adapts to the people it interacts with, Scassellati and his team hope to establish an objective baseline from which to quantify human social behavior, potentially creating a new way to study social development.
MUCH OF THE FUNDAMENTAL knowledge that underpins our search for extraterrestrial life and supports our understanding of our solar system's history and evolution emerges from this small room in Theodor Kostiuk's laboratory. On the rightmost table, infrared light from a powerful carbon dioxide laser excites various molecules to reveal their spectroscopic signatures. This and other lasers in the lab often operate overnight to increase the precision of their measurements.
BY COMPARING ASTRONOMICAL DATA with the values Kostiuk and his coworkers obtain experimentally, researchers can know the temperature, pressure, and composition of a planet's atmosphere almost as certainly as if they were there.
FITTINGLY, THIS TABLE is preparation for when we, or our robotic emissaries, actually visit other worlds — it's a developmental prototype for a laser spectroscope that may fly on future missions to Mars or Saturn's giant moon, Titan, where it would look for alien life by directly sampling the atmosphere for biological by-product gases like oxygen and methane.
IN RECENT YEARS THE ZEBRAFISH, a common aquarium pet, has come to rival the lab mouse as a model organism for developmental biology. At the NIH rows of interconnected tanks house the tens of thousands of transgenic zebrafish that Shawn Burgess and his coworkers use to investigate developmental genomics, specifically in the ear.
RESEARCHERS CREATE TRANSGENIC zebrafish by inserting, deleting, or mutating genes; these alterations enable scientists to closely monitor a gene's activity and function.
UNLIKE HUMANS, zebrafish deafened by loud noises or toxic chemicals can in time regain their hearing by neural regeneration; how their genes control that ability is a crucial question in developmental biology, and understanding it could lead to new treatments for human hearing loss.
DURING THE LAB'S 10-hour "night" cycle, only dim red lights illuminate the room, to ensure the fish can rest. The green glow comes from a long ultraviolet sterilizing tube that kills microorganisms that would otherwise accumulate in the constantly recycled water.
SOMETIMES THE ONLY WAY to understand how something is made is to build it yourself. In Jack Szostak's lab, he and his colleagues hope to clarify the murky origins of life by constructing its essential components — things like self-replicating molecules and cell membranes — from scratch. Our limited knowledge of the conditions on the early Earth makes this task quite difficult. For instance, life could have begun in environments that were very hot, very cold, or oscillating between both extremes. In this storage room, a continuous experiment investigates how thermal gradients influence concentrations of biological precursor molecules.
CHILLED TO 4 DEGREES CELSIUS to inhibit the spread of bacteria, the room itself is the "cold" portion of the experiment. Heat comes from a countertop hot plate. Stretched midway between hot and cold, thin glass tubes filled with molecular cocktails gestate for days or weeks. Results from this may help reveal not only our most ancient origins but also the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe.