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...