Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Fund Raising

Last night was a blast --- Andrew and Stef organized our second fund-raiser (the first was a yard sale in May) at Sonotheque, a great club just north of downtown Chicago. It was a great venue for us, and they were extremely generous in letting us take the entire amount collected at the door. Stef and Andrew had arranged for a list of DJs to come in and spin tunes, so there was no shortage of music. The place was very chic, very modern --- in fact, it was very non-descript outside. You'd hardly know anything was there, and I gathered from a few of the regulars that that was somewhat intentional. The owners owned a couple of expensive, chi chi restaurants, and they tended to just pass along knowledge of the place by word of mouth to select clients. So it had a certain exclusive feel that was sort of fun.

We also had some giant posters of enlargements from a comic book Monica found at one of her many estate sale forays: Atom Man. Appropriate for us. We raffled these posters off for a dollar a ticket.

As I worked the front door, collecting the cover charge, I had to reflect that it's unfortunate that in our country there is so little support for the arts. 10 or 15 years ago, we'd have a pretty good chance of getting some financial help from the National Endowment for the Arts, or from several other foundations or endowments. Not anymore. As our country gets more and more conservative, the arts suffer more and more. I've had to come to grips with the fact that our country is not one that values its art, or its artists. A by-product of the so-called American Dream work ethic is that people have less and less tolerance for those whose work is not necessarily revenue-generating. Especially today, in Bush's "ownership society," the emphasis placed on monetary self-sufficiency and materialistic gain as the only worthy outcomes of labor puts a real squeeze on art. If you can't sell that painting for $50,000, why are you painting it? Is that movie going to make a million? No? Then why are you wasting your time? The converse, of course, happens this way: did that movie cost 50 million to make? No? Then why should I go see it? I don't have to tell you this has already been happening for quite some time.

And it's not just happening in the arts, as we've begun to learn while making this film: science has been suffering from the conservative's push towards a gain-based value system as well. Does that research you're doing have a chance of making a million for the patent holder? No? Then we're not funding it. Does that experiment have a chance at creating a marketable device or chemical or drug that a company might buy? No? Then you can't have the equipment you need or the lab space. It seems like the days of pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake are going away... this is one of the questions we'll be exploring as we begin to talk to scientists.

It's interesting, as Monica has pointed out several times, the parallels these days between science and the arts in terms of money. Sometimes the work has no obvious monetary value, no way to generate revenue. Scrambling for funding has become the norm, and it seems like our country values the intrinsic worth of these endeavors less and less.

Which is why we have to work so hard to scrape together the money we need to buy video tapes, to get insurance, to rent a camera. We can't depend (or even hope for) grants without a long, long track record. So, we have to be creative and come up with other ways to generate the funds we need. Thanks to Andrew and Stef, we were able to do that and have fun at the same time. Despite the fact that it was a heavy, wet, snowy evening, we got nearly 100 people in the door. Stef took some great pix which I'll try to post here at some point. We got enough cash to get our insurance paid for for the year plus a little more to pay some debts. We're planning on more of these events in the future --- hopefully a square dance is in the works!

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

What we want vs. what they think we want - we learn a lesson

John Conway and Robin Erbacher are married physicists who work at Fermilab. They both work for the CDF experiment, which is one of the two detectors on the ring of the accelerator. Since the accelerator hasn't been officially turned on yet (it happens in December), the detectors are open for inspection and maintenance. When the thing fires up it will be deadly in there --- full of radiation. But in the meantime, they agreed to give us a tour of the place.

Our whole group went (minus Elizabeth, our fund developer). The detector is in a huge warehouse bigger than a football field and several stories tall. John and Robin escorted us inside the actual detector area, giving us a quick lecture on radiation and giving us hard hats to wear. Robin had a special red hard hat with her name across the front in stick-on letters (this is a goldmine for the camera), and we watched as John rubbed the other hard hats we were to wear with a geiger counter. I had never seen one in real life --- it ticked a couple of times, which I assumed was just background radiation since John didn't seem too concerned.

So we donned our hard hats and went into the detector area, which was a room about fifty feet square and probably 40 feet tall. It was crammed with incredible-looking equipment; more camera gold. In the center was the detector itself: a huge donut as high as the ceiling and 20 feet thick. The beam from the accelerator, about a pencil-width of pure protons and anti-protons, would be streaming through the center of the donut when the Tevatron was activated (it's not every day one gets to write sentences with the words "anti-proton," "tevatron," and "activated." Everyone should be so lucky). The beams would collide in the center of that donut and sub-atomic debris would fly out.

Now, I always assumed that when you talk about detecting debris and remnants from a sub-atomic collision that you were talking about a collision on a subatomic scale. It only makes sense. I always assumed that these collisions, no matter how supposedly "massive" they were, could be easily contained on the head of a pin. Probably thousands could be contained on the head of a pin. After all, we're talking about sub-atomic particles, right? How big an explosion could they make?

Enter the CDF detector. Did I mention it's about 40 feet tall? That's right. Debris from a sub-atomic explosion travels ... 40 feet. You can measure the distance the debris from a sub-atomic explosion travels IN FEET. Not nano-meters or microns. You could even say yards or meters. That blew my mind.

So the detector is basically a giant MRI --- when those sub-atomic bits fly away from the explosion, they fly right through the detector, which captures their tragectory with incredibly precision in 3d space. John and Robin gave us the tour. And that's where we ran into trouble.

We realized we hadn't done a good job of indicating what we were looking for. As we prepped the equipment for the shot, we saw that John and Robin were prepping as well, trying to think of what to say. We hadn't indicated that we weren't NOVA, that we weren't interested in an educational lecture, that we were looking for personal stories, informal stories, and that we wanted them to just be themselves on camera. As soon as the tape was rolling, we saw that we had made a mistake. As soon as we fired up the camera, a definite change came over them.

Scientists hate when artists appropriate their terminology, but I must make use of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which states (in part) that the act of observing something, in effect of shining a light on it, changes that which you are trying to observe. In essence, you can never see something in its pure, natural state. This was certainly the case with our hapless physicists-cum-interviewees. Gone was the easy-going charm, the quick wits, the banter, the informal and fascinating insights. In their place was stiffness, lecturing, and an awkward delivery of information. Pointing, blank stares, monotone. Most people, including physicists, have only seen physicists in documentaries as bland sources of information, not as people. Why should we have expected them to read our minds and assume we wanted something completely different?

Most of the footage was unusable, and it was completely our fault. When I say our fault, I mean mine and Monica's (my co-director). Stef framed everything up beautifully, Andrew recorded sound and secured rights and paperwork without a problem, and Luke assisted the whole process perfectly. But Monica and I failed to inform our subjects what we wanted from them, and they defaulted to what they assumed we wanted. Lesson learned. Even Stef got bored, looking through the camera.

From that day on, we realized we needed to do a much better job of letting our subjects know what we wanted from them, and we assumed that it would be a full-time job since we want something considerably different from our scientists than most documentarians do...

Friday, October 15, 2004

Trouble in the Control Room

On Tuesday, we got the chance to get inside the Main Control Room, which is sort of like the Bridge on the Enterprise in Star Trek. Also a little like the big room in the Kennedy space center where everyone monitors the progress of the space shuttle. As you might expect, there are dozens and dozens of computer monitors, and anywhere from 10 to 40 people wandering around, sitting, standing, talking, looking intently, pointing, running, laughing, and eating sandwiches. It was quite a place. It was also the place where we were yelled at for the first time in making our film, but I'll get to that later.

Our plan for the day was three-fold. First, we were going to get some footage of the spectacular and beautifully-named Tevatron (specifically the impressive sounding Cockroft-Walton device) which looked straight out of Flash Gordon. This thing was incredible, and we had seen photos of it many times (any journalist visiting Fermilab is always taken there since it's so photogenic), so we knew we wanted footage of it. It's in a cavernous room and looks very much like a cartoon robot: a large metallic square standing on legs composed of large round spheres, a little like the legs on Robbie the Robot. In fact, the whole thing is rounded, because it operates at such massive voltage levels that any square edge or corner would cause it to arc to the wall like a bolt of lightning (and probably about as powerful as a lightning strike). It looks very much like a science-fiction artist from the early sixties dreamed it up, and it's a little hard to believe that it's shape and look are strictly functional. But we took their word that the designers had only its efficient operation in mind when they made it.

Originally uploaded by 137 Films.

The second thing we were going to do was get some footage in the Main Control Room. Every year in October, the Tevatron (which is essentially the engine in the huge particle accelerator ring) is shut down for two months for routine maintenance and upgrades. It had just shut down, we were able to have access to the Main Control Room (MCR) during this downtime. We thought we'd get some footage of the people who actually run the joint.

The third part of our day was to be actually allowed inside the ring tunnel itself. The tunnel has a four-mile circumference and is underground. It's a little like a subway tunnel --- probably ten or twelve feet high. Along the outer wall is a series of pipes and supports, electronics and mysterious machinery, serving to enhance a pipe about eight inches in diameter. This is where the actual proton and anti-proton beams race around, sped up and directed by hundreds of superconducting magnets, eventually to be collided at unimaginable speeds at the detectors located elsewhere around the ring. But that's for a different post. Suffice it to say that we were lucky that they agreed to let us in the ring; when the accelerator is actually in operation it's completely off limits due to the intense radiation.

We first went to the MCR. All of us were there except Elizabeth, our fund development person. We received a radiation briefing and were given radiation detectors to make sure we didn't recieve an unsafe dose. Then we went into the MCR --- just Stef with the camera, Andrew with the microphone, and me, since they didn't want a crowd of five. We got footage of the activity, which was on the mild side since the accelerator was not actually in operation. After a few minutes, we were told that we could get inside the ring in one hour. Since we were visitors, accelerator protocol required that we be accompanied by one guide per person, and they could spare only three guides. In other words, three of us could go, accompanied by three guides. Bob Mau, the guy in charge, told us not to be late.

Then we left for the Cockroft-Walton. One of our main subjects, John Conway (an easy-going experimentalist working on the Higgs search) was with us, because he had never actually seen much of this equipment. He seemed interested to take a look at the guts of the accelerator, since he did all his work over at one of the detectors, a third of the way around the ring.

When we got there, we were shown around by Ray, an engineer with a great face. He gave us a brief tour. As I mentioned, the place was just gold for the camera, so we got lots of shots. Down on the floor, looking up at the Cockroft-Walton, I looked at my watch and noticed we had about 15 minutes before our rendezvous for the trip into the ring. I looked over at John and asked if he thought it would be OK if we were a few minutes late. I knew that packing up video gear took longer than you might think.

"No problem," he said. "Don't worry about it."

Big mistake.

We arrived twenty minutes late back at the MCR. Monica had graciously volunteered to sit out and let me go in (I think she might have been feeling a little claustrophobic about being in a dingy, curved tunnel full of potential radioactivity --- can you blame her?) so Stef, Andrew and I walked in, ready to go.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Bob Mau descended upon us. "So here's my video crew?" he thundered. "We have graciously allowed you a tour. I specifically told you to be here at two o'clock sharp! I've got three engineers wasting time waiting for you and I need all the people I have here! We've had many video crews here before and NO ONE has ever been this disrespectful! I want you to know right now that you are NOT in our good graces!"

What could I say? He was absolutely right. I stammered an apology, hoping upon hope that he would still allow us in the ring. The control room had gotten embarrassingly quiet. He turned to someone and said "Sorry. I just had to get that off my chest." I could have sworn I saw him wink, but I couldn't bet on it.

Much to my relief, he pointed out our guides. They were young, in their twenties, and looked stern while Bob was there. After we donned our hard hats and went inside the ring, they delicately told us not to worry too much about the outburst. Clearly they had the utmost respect for their boss, and didn't want to dismiss what he had said, but it sounded like they were accustomed to a blow-out every once in a while. But that's what bosses are supposed to do, right? I have a feeling that's exactly what Captain Kirk would have done if some 24th century documentarians had been late for a tour of the Enterprise's engineering section.

The ring itself was slightly anti-climactic, although it's hard to imagine anything topping the Cockroft-Walton. It was hot, dim, slightly dingy, and looked a little more like, well, a subway tunnel than anything else. We asked some questions of our guides, who were very reluctant to get in front of the camera, and got some shots.

Afterwards we left, thanking our guides and asking them to convey our sincere thanks and apologies again to Dr. Mau. Later, when I sent an email to Fred Ulrich, the guy who had helped set up the interview, he responded with "I was present when Bob Mau expressed himself and it was an uncomfortable moment." How's that for understatement? When I informed him we'd be sending an apology letter, he said, "that's probably a good idea."

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Peter Higgs, as in "Higgs Boson"

When you make arrangements from a different timezone, on a different continent, from several thousand miles away, people and places become an abstraction. So, despite the fact that I had hired a Scottish videographer, made arrangements to meet Dr. Higgs, and printed maps of his house in Edinburgh, it was still something of a shock when I actually found myself shaking the hand of Dr. Peter Higgs in his living room with the videographer at my side.

The videographer was great --- he set up quickly while Dr. Higgs and I talked in his kitchen. He seemed to be a widower, living in a flat with his daughter, who apparently was an artist. The place had stone floors and 15-foot ceilings, and all the rooms were painted in vivid, rich single colors. The kitchen was pumpkin orange, the living room deep green. He said his daughter did all of that, and sometimes he wondered about the colors, but was content to trust her with it. He was soft spoken and extremely modest, downplaying his role in formulating the theory of the Higgs boson, despite the fact that the thing was named for him.

The videographer called us in and we sat down. Dr. Higgs was a little nervous, and part of his nervousness was expressed in his answers; I think he felt as though he had to delve deep into the scientific realm to respond to my questions. Consequently, many of his answers were extremely long, and extremely technical. This was our very first interview, and although I had interviewed many people in the past, I had never asked questions about things I had such a tenuous understanding of --- I must confess that I only understood the very surface of his responses.

Some scientists are extremely gifted at speaking in metaphor, in using examples from everyday life, or in gauging what parts of an answer need to be scientific and what parts blend into the philosophical. Dr. Higgs did not seem to have developed this ability; perhaps he had never needed to. Consequently, I'm not sure how much of the interview is useful, and I'm afraid much of it is my fault. Looking back I feel as though I could have done a better job of guiding him towards answers that made more sense to more people, although when I did ask him to answer the question "what is the higgs boson" using non-scientific terms, he seemed completely flummoxed. He started and stopped a couple of times, and then gave up. Luke, our visual effects director, said that most likely that was the best part of the interview. I think he may be right, not because there's anything especially appealing about watching a scientific genius stammer at a loss for words, but because it seems to encapsulate our struggle with the challenge of making this documentary: how do you tell the story of something so complicated and scientific that only a few people in the world can actually understand it?

It's a challenge that I relish, and the key lies in the people involved with the scientific ideas --- even if we can't understand exactly what the Higgs boson does, we can understand how important it is. Even if we can't grasp the scientific principles of the search, or the technical processes involved in searching, we can understand the passion of the people searching for it. At the same time, I feel as though it's important not to run away from the scientific, from the techinical. That part of the story, for me, is like poetry; the beauty of the universe being discovered.

At the same time, sitting there with Dr. Higgs, nodding as if I understand what he's saying, I can see the potential difficulties. While people can lose interest in something they don't understand, they lose interest even faster when it's something they don't care about. A pervading theme in our film addresses that directly: why should we care? Why should we care about the Higgs boson? Why should we care if it is found? In an age and a country in which material benefit is so important, in which research is assigned importance by its potential ability to raise money and generate marketable technology, answering that question can be difficult. Our culture seems to tell us that pure research, the search for knowledge and understanding, the search for how the universe works, becomes less and less of a satisfactory answer to those questions.

For me, and for us as we make this film, the answer to the question "why should we care?" lies in how much each person we talk to cares. There passion, their drive, transfers to us. Even though we can't understand exactly what they are searching for, we all can understand the passion of searching for something crucial to our lives. We can understand the quest for knowledge, the search for answers, because we've all been passionate about finding our own answers to our own mysteries.

And, we realize we may be making a leap of faith. We might be making an assumption of our audience: that they believe in the importance of learning, of discovering, of knowing. That a scientist doesn't have to defend the purpose of scientific exploration. Scientists have gotten used to operating with that assumption in place, both in the public arena and in government. There are so many important contributions to our culture, to our society, and even to our civilization that to list them would be unnecessary.

And yet, in today's culture, that leap of faith, that assumption, may be more and more naive. We all watch the news as America seems to be coming to odds with it's scientific legacy. Many people, ordinary Americans, are rejecting important scientific milestones such as Darwin's work with evolution, the importance of preserving the environment, and elevating the need for military research and spending over nearly every other kind of scientific inquiry. So we find ourselves returning to the question, and to the scientists, to say, "no, really, why SHOULD we care?" It's a question the scientists are not used to being asked, and not used to answering. It has occurred to me more than once, and to all of us making the film, that perhaps this is our main theme. Part of the rich tapestry of our story is, in fact, the way science struggles to answer a question it is not used to being asked, and the ways in which a culture is changing that it should demand such an answer.

None of this was going through my mind in Peter Higgs' living room, however. I was simply struggling to keep nodding, to plan when I could jump in and nudge him this way or that way, hoping the videographer had enough light, wondering if his audio levels were good, and wondering if I were getting anything usable out of this interview. I knew I would have plenty of time to contemplate the larger questions involved in making our film.

When we finished, I thanked Dr. Higgs profusely for allowing me to speak with him, thanked and paid the videographer, grabbed the video tapes and caught a cab back to the train station. It was breathless, and exhilerating --- I found myself thinking, "I could get used to this." If only our fledgling non-profit had an overseas travel budget.