It is one of the least aesthetically pleasing buildings imaginable. Painted a blah institutional beige, it stretches on and on and interminably on, resembling a long and obsessively straight storage shed. This blight on the bucolic Peninsula landscape may not exude the romance of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Colossus of Rhodes, but the linear accelerator at Stanford is one of the wonders of the world — a monument to humanity’s ceaseless quest to understand the universe.

The particle accelerator is the backbone of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a 426-acre complex on Stanford land off Sand Hill Road, near the main university campus. The seeds of what was to become SLAC were planted on April 10, 1956, when Stanford’s Wolfgang “Pief” Panofsky hosted a group of fellow physicists at his home to propose an audacious project: the world’s largest and most expensive physics research instrument — a $114 million, 2-milelong linear electron accelerator. Officially called the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC, but affectionately referred to by Stanford scientists as “the Monster,” at that time, it would be the biggest U.S. government–funded civilian science project.