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Miniscule worlds create extreme data

Data extremes. Image courtesy SLAC. Click to enlarge.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory – located at and operated by Stanford University, California, on behalf of the US Department of Energy – is using a two-mile-long linear accelerator (linac) to drive a laser, creating X-ray pulses of unprecedented brilliance. The Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) produces pulses of X-rays more than a billion times brighter than the most powerful existing sources.

Chemical reactions, in which molecules join or split, can take place in mere quadrillionths of a second. Remarkably, the LCLS is able to capture images of these atoms and molecules in motion. The ultrafast X-ray pulses are like flashes from a high-speed strobe light, enabling scientists to take stop-motion pictures of atoms and molecules.

These pictures shed light on the fundamental processes of chemistry and life itself – by sequencing images of the ultra-small, taken with the ultra-fast pulses of the LCLS, scientists are essentially creating molecular movies, revealing the frenetic action of the atomic world.

The LCLS data team manages about 10 petabytes of data – including user-generated data and tape copies of raw data – which is about three times more than Netflix’s total data library. Just one petabyte of data would fill compact discs stacked as tall as the Transamerica Pyramid.

- Amber Harmon

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