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Mar. 18, 2009

The Atom Smashers

by Guest Blogger

By Ben Lillie

Recently I attended the opening of The Atom Smashers, a documentary by
Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross from 137 Films. It was held,
appropriately, at the Museum of Science and Industry. Unfortunately,
this had the effect of providing us with what is probably the smallest
screen in the city of Chicago. That can easily be forgiven because the
film itself was exceptional.

In blurb form, The Atom Smashers is about scientists at the Tevatron,
a 4 mile diameter machine hosted at Fermi National Accelerator
Laboratory (Fermilab) in the suburbs of Chicago and currently the
worlds largest particle accelerator. They are racing to find something
called The Higgs Boson before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an even
bigger machine being built in Switzerland, is completed and beats them
to the discovery.

In contrast to what you’d expect from that description, very little
time is spent explaining what the Higgs is, or why people are looking
for it. Much of the sequence introducing the Higgs shows the
individual scientists’ deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the question
“What, really, is the Higgs Boson?” The most unexpected and surreal
setting — then director of Fermilab Leon Lederman appearing on
Donohue, complete with blackboard and multi-colored chalk — is notable
not for the exposition, but for what appears to be his complete
failure to communicate to the audience why the Tevatron was worth
building. In the few voice-over sequences the animation are
uncomplicated, they strive not for the Pixar sheen that seems the goal
of most current documentaries, but instead channel the disordered yet
simple blackboard of the working scientist.

That resonance with work-day science is also the first hint to the
film’s strength. This is a documentary, not about the science, but
about the scientists; not about the highly structured world of ideas
in which they live, but about the emotional life surrounding that
world. We see the Fermilab model airplane club and the rock band,
complete with band leader Ben Kilminster’s dream of being a rock star.
We watch the tango lessons hosted by theorist Marcela Carena. We
follow the stresses of the life of Robin Erbacher and John Conway —
trying to start a family while commuting weekly between teaching in
Davis, California and researching in Batavia, Illinois. We are
invited, in contrast to the norm in science documentaries, to see the
scientists as ordinary people, with ordinary problems, ordinary
hobbies, and ordinary families.

The Atom Smashers’ stripping away of science exposition does not mean
that the science is lost. It shines through beautifully in two ways.
One of the main sub-stories concerns how John Conway and his group
found a “bump” in the data that hinted that the Higgs might be within
reach. (He blogged about this here and here.) The group members share
their excitement at the initial finding, the nervousness,
apprehension, and flat-out hard work as they extend the analysis in an
attempt to confirm the signal, and finally the disappointment when the
follow-up shows no effect. This is a treat in a science documentary: a
story about an exciting lead that turns out to go nowhere. It’s
understandable that these would usually be skipped, but ignoring them
presents a very skewed picture of life as a scientist. John’s story
represents the bulk of scientific work; follow a lead until it dies,
shrug, then go on to the next thing. The thought of making a
breakthrough is what keeps most researchers excited about going on,
but the moments of true discovery are far between.

Excitement is the second aspect of science that shines in the film.
The main plot-line concerns the race as Fermilab physicists try to
find the Higgs before the LHC is turned on. (With the LHC’s increased
energy and volume of data, a victory over the Tevatron is a fait
accompli once the new machine is running.) There is a clear sense that
every person working there wants desperately and whole-heartedly to
find the damn thing. While it’s entirely possible that someone seeing
the film will leave with no better idea what the Higgs is than when
they entered, no one could watch it without picking up the sense of
enthusiasm for the search. This is what completes the picture of
scientists as people. Their job is one of passion and drive. We are
not shown robots, mechanically pushing buttons on their colossal
machines and reading out the secrets of the universe off the
ticker-tape output, but instead people who are much more akin to
athletes, driven to extraordinary feats by the twin desires of wanting
to better themselves and to beat the other team.

It is in their pursuit of this sense of competition that the
filmmakers commit their only real error. They choose to portray the
Higgs search as a race between the Tevatron in the United States —
“us” — and the LHC in Europe — “them”. But, almost every physicist
working on the Tevatron is also involved with one of the experiments
at the LHC. As Erbacher said in the panel discussion after the
screening, in this case “them is us”. There is, in fact, a tremendous
amount of competition, but it is between the different experiments at
the same machine. These are CDF and D0 at the Tevatron, which have
been competing for years, soon to be replaced by ATLAS and CMS at the
LHC. While many would be happy to have one of the Tevatron experiments
make the discovery first, no one is going to complain if it’s found a
few years later, because they’ll be part of that as well. Even more
importantly, there is a point where the sports analogy fails. In
baseball there is a World Series every year and some team will win it,
the only question is which one. When hunting for a discovery the
question is whether there will even be a “World Series” for someone to
win. While everyone wants to be the team that wins, what they want
most is for the game to be played. In particle physics it’s been 13
years since an important discovery, and 25 since there was a
revolutionary one.

This one flaw is far from fatal, and The Atom Smashers is the best
treatment of the lives of physicists that I have ever seen. I would
highly recommend seeing it if given the chance.

About Guest Blogger

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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