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.The Atom Smashers has been accepted at several upcoming film festivals, and it will be aired on PBS’s Independent Lens on November 25th. More information can be found at the 137 Films website, and the film’s blog.