Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Round Table

I heard back from our contact in the Accelerator Division and he's agreeable to setting up the "round table" discussion in the first of the new year.

In the meantime, I drew up the first "paper edit" of our film so far. It's a little exciting to see the first look at how it might come together, although there are some holes that are evident. And, of course, we'd love to have some kind of resounding finish. Not sure we have a conclusive "ending" yet.

Monica and I are about half-way through with digitizing the 100+ tapes we have shot so far. Other than some timecode errors resulting from a camera we used near the beginning of the shoot, everything has gone pretty smoothly.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Quenchers, Part III

The story, continued.

When we got there, we spoke with the head of the Acclerator mechanics. Right away we could tell this was a bigger deal than I had previously thought when I said it was kind of a routine thing. I asked if it was a four-alarm fire. He said "Nope. I'd call it a 10-alarm fire." He said it was maybe the worst quench he'd ever seen in twenty something years at Fermilab.

Naturally, we were really excited to get in the tunnel and get some footage of it all. There was a little shuffling and some back and forth along the lines of "I'll have to check." (to Dr. Johnson) "It is OK?" "Is it OK with you?" "Yeah. Is it OK with you?" "If it's OK with you, it's OK with me." "I'll have to check with my guys." (to guys) "Is it OK with you?" "Is OK with Dr. Johnson?" "If it's OK with you, it's OK with him." "Well, if it's OK with you, it's OK with us." (to us) "Well, I guess it's OK."

We breathed a sigh of relief. The three of us went through a 15-minute radiation training session and Andrew and I went down to the tunnel --- each with two doseometers (to check radiation levels), an emergency oxygen supply, and an escort (Monica decided to stay above ground). We were allowed 15 minutes in the tunnel.

We got 15 minutes of footage of a repair crew, some helpful explanations, and a slightly different sense from one of the mechanics there.

"It happens," he said, shrugging. I asked him if he would consider this a 10-alarm fire. "Nah," he said. "Pretty routine."

As we left I noticed they had a radio down there, underground. A wire was wrapped around the antenna and snaked its way to a copper pipe on the wall and wrapped around it (you can see this pipe in Quenchers II --- one of two parallel pipes above the guy's head). I asked if they could get reception.

"This is a water line, a copper pipe that goes all the way around the ring. We're Bears fans. With a four-mile circular piece of 2-inch copper, I'd say right now we've got about the best AM radio antenna in the world."


While Andrew and I were down in the tunnel, Monica was having a great conversation with one of our hosts. Without the camera. Because, like some of the people we run into, he flat-out refused to get on camera. He expressed fear and doubt about the future of Fermilab, frustration with the government and with American culture. In short, he verbalized every theme we want to pursue, with a more direct pathos than we've heard so far. There was a distinct difference in his point of view: he was an engineer, not a physicist, and had a completely different relationship with the machine, the Tevatron, than that of the physicists. I hate to keep making Star Trek analogies, but these guys are truly the Red Shirts in Engineering. They know every screw, nut, and bolt, and jump in to fix anything that ever goes wrong. Their story is quite different from those of the physicists, who see the Tevatron as a means to an end (i.e. getting high-energy science out of it). They'll go where ever new science is happening. But the engineers and mechanics --- they only know the Tevatron. They're not likely to jump over to Geneva in 2007. What are they feeling?

The problem is, they, more than anyone, are resistant to getting in front of the camera. And if they do, they stiffen like witnesses on the stand (one guy answered all Monica's questions using "ma'am" : "Ma'am, I'm not qualified to answer that question. Yes, ma'am. I'll have to check on that, ma'am.")

Monica was exasperated with the poignancy of the conversation she had had --- off camera. So what to do? In the car on the way home, she suggested we sit down with a couple of the engineers and mechanics, maybe even three or four, in a very informal "roundtable" type of discussion. Try to make it feel more like a conversation, rather than an "Interview." I thought it sounded like a great idea. I wrote back, suggesting such an arrangement. Haven't heard a word.

I tend to believe this quench is more than just "nah. Routine." The tevatron will be offline for over two weeks. Even though it doesn't really alter the search for the Higgs or ultimately affect the machine, it demonstrates how delicate this huge device can be --- and how many people depend on it.

Quenchers, Part II

Monica, Andrew and I went down to Fermilab on Thursday of last week. Remember when I said I didn't think this was such a big deal? Well, it was a bigger deal than I thought.

Our friend Bob Mau, whom we crossed with our tardiness a year ago, was on vacation. Dan Johnson was filling in, and he was extremely helpful. He set up some interviews for us (!) and generally helped facilitate everything. I now know a little more about what a quench is.

Here's an overhead of the Tevatron:


As I've written before, this thing is 4 miles in circumference, and it's all underground (the circular "river" than runs above it is to help cool it off).

Here's what it looks like underground, inside the tunnel:


And this:

view of Tevatron in A sector of main ring tunnel

See that red part they're looking at, followed by the yellow part? That's the actual pipe (OK, so it's square) that the protons and anti-protons are running through. You can see that the tunnel is curving way back in the distance --- if you wanted to, you could put on your track suit and start jogging --- four miles later you'd be back in this same spot.

How do you get protons and anti-protons to go in a circle? You use magnets --- lots of very large, very powerful magnets --- spaced every few feet or so. These magnets give the protons and anti-protons a little nudge, guiding them in a circle. Imagine you're at a circular race track, and you've rigged the outer guard rail with a magnet every 6 inches, all the way around the track. You load up your rifle with a steel bullet, aim it along the guard rail and pull the trigger. If you've done your math correctly, each magnet will nudge the bullet as it passes, making it curve a little more, until it goes all the way around the circle. You'd have to jump out of the way or the bullet would hit you in the back. These magnets are the key to understanding what a quench is.

These magnets use electricity, and electricity tends to make things hot. In order to work properly, the magnets have to be really, really REALLY cold. This means the electricity works without resistance. Think of it like this: let's say you were riding in a car on a highway. Maybe you're not too bright, and you decide to open your car door and stick your hand down on the road. All that friction is going to burn up your hand in a hurry. That's what happens when electricity runs through things --- it meets resistance, and it heats up (that's why a light bulb gets so hot). Now, imagine that you are on a perfectly slick, icy road (ignore for the moment that your car would probably end up in a ditch). When you stick your hand down, it slides along without the slightest trouble. Your hand doesn't heat up at all. That's the basic premise --- that's how they keep the magnets working.

How do they keep the magnets so cool? Liquid helium, my friend, liquid helium.

Detector machinery

But liquid helium is tricky stuff. What happened last Monday is that a bit of liquid helium insulation failed and let some of the liquid helium heat up. When it gets a little warmer, it changes from liquid to gas (just like water does). The only problem is, a gas is a lot more volatile than a liquid. When it started turning into a gas, it expanded by a factor of about 700. Have you ever put a frozen dinner in the microwave and forgotten to poke a hole in the plastic wrap? It expands and pops because the water turns to steam. If it has no where to go, it busts through whatever is holding it. Ditto for liquid helium, but more so. Suddenly finding itself 700 times bigger, the helium busted through the pipes like the Incredible Hulk bursting out of his shirt. This caused that particular magnet to suddenly overheat and stop working, and the protons and anti-protons didn't get the nudge they needed and sprayed into the wall instead of going around the circle.

Alarms went off, people choked on their coffee, warning lights started blinking across the board, and the whole thing shut down. And I mean THE WHOLE THING shut down. Both detectors, everyone taking data, several hundred people did a collective "huh?" and all operations ground to a halt. No one was in the tunnel, of course, since there is too much radiation during operation, but I asked one of the engineers what someone would have seen if they had been standing right there.

"There would have been a loud bang," he said, "and insulation being blown apart like confetti." Later, once we had gotten inside the tunnel, one of the mechanics showed us the insulation --- it looked like that kind of high-tech tin foil you see on NASA satellites. He said that stuff was all over the floor.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

So, how do you do that?

Maritza asked about the editing process. Here's a primer for the way we'll do it:

1) digitize the footage.
We've already started this process. Monica and I are starting in on the more than 100 tapes we've recorded so far. We aren't looking at content at the moment --- we're just capturing every second of footage we've taken and getting it into the computer to start examining later (in the world of writing, it's kind of like taking your reams of handwritten notes and scanning them in to the computer so that you can start editing your essay for content). We do it in 3 20-minute chunks per tape, and we're doing it at a low, rough resolution (we have to do it at a low resolution because it would take many hard drives full to capture all our footage at high resolution. Using low resolution we can have access to all our footage. When we're done, we can finish up with a high resolution version. It looks a little fuzzy, but you get used to it). For ease, in addition to our complete tape naming scheme ("Interview with Leon Lederman, 11/05/2005", for example) we've just given each tape a number. So when we digitize to the computer we use the numbers, so it will be easy to keep track of each tape and grab it when the computer calls for it later.

2) Log the footage
This is where it gets a little agonizing. In the first stage, you simply capture in giant chunks. In this stage, you actually make smaller clips (called subclips) based on what's happening. For example, if Ben is roller blading around the ring, you might take a great 30-second clip out of the big 20-minute chunk and call it "Ben rollerblades." You'd also enter lots of other information, such as location, the time, who's on camera, etc. so that you can sort it all later (call up all the shots of the ring, for example, or all the shots with Ben). After this stage we will have many, many hundreds of small clips, each named something descriptive. These are the basic puzzle pieces we will be shuffling around to make the film.

During this phase also we will be getting a real idea of what we've got and what we don't have. Rough themes will begin to emerge, and we'll fall in love with some clips, be disappointed by others, sick that we missed some things, excited by something we didn't expect, discouraged and energized in equal measure.

3) Transcribe the footage
Truly agonizing. We will literally type (or, hopefully, enlist someone to help) all the interviews. As torturous as this is, it is critical, because you can't imagine how many times you'd find yourself asking "didn't Leon Lederman say something like that? Or was it John Conway? Weren't they talking about this sometime in the winter? Which tape was that on? Or was that someone else? Or did I totally imagine that?" All these questions can be answered when it is in cold black and white, in an indexible word file.

4) Create a paper edit
Now the strategizing and creative work begins. Since we now know what we've got, and what everyone says and does, it's possible to create a rough diagram and flow chart of the movie simply on paper. I've used big pieces of paper before, making a long timeline; I've used notecards; I've done it on a computer. For me, I really love the feel of a pencil and paper, so in conjunction with Monica and with feedback from Luke and Andrew, the first stab will probably be done that way. 2nd draft, 3rd draft, changes, adjustments.

5) Obtain secondary footage
We'll be using some news footage from local and national goings-on, so we have to pursue the legal and logistical battles associated with aquiring footage of, say, the Dover Pennsylvania school district announcing they are requiring teachers to discuss intelligent design in the classroom.

6) Begin the edit
The paper edit is a nice starting point, and essential to get an idea of the flow of the story, but everything changes when you start seeing clips in place on a timeline. Things are too slow, things rush by too fast, themes are not developed like you thought, certain footage is not compelling like you had hoped, and suddenly new things emerge as threads to pursue that you hadn't imagined would be interesting. People get chopped out of the edit, new people find their way in, whole themes get tweaked and massaged or cut altogether.

One thing that will make this film manageable (and more fun, in my opinion) in the editing room is that we are planning to treat the year we spend with the Tevatron as just that --- a year. So in a sense, that gives us a basic structure from the start. We'll be thinking of our story in terms of several units (months) strung together. In that way, we can focusing on creating a beautiful, totally engrossing "January," or "August." Sometimes it's easier to think about a larger work in terms of several successful subdivisions --- like focusing on writing a great chapter instead of always trying to write the novel.

7) Deadline 1: the Rough Cut
You have to have a deadline. This is when you have a working, albeit still flawed, version of the film for trusted viewers to watch and give you feedback. Watching a movie you've made with even one other unconnected person is a radically different experience than watching it alone in front of your computer. This is when people blink and say "I don't get this at all" or "hmmm. That's pretty good. But that middle section is way, way too long. I don't care about that guy or what he's doing."

8) Deadline 2: Rough Cut #2
Taking the feedback from your viewers and from your gut, you make adjustments, re-edit. This process could have a #3 if you feel there are major changes to be made.

9) Deadline 3: Fine Cut
This is where you've got it about as good as you can get it --- the music is in place, the themes are where they will stay, and the time for major changes is over. You show it to trusted viewers again for feedback on timing ("that shot is just a little too long") and emotional impact ("that section works really well, but would work better if...") and overall effectiveness ("a little more impact on your last point").

10) Deadline 4: Final Cut
Self-explanatory. Big party.

If you're lucky and work really really hard, this process can take 6-9 months. Usually much shorter with a fiction film, since you basically know how it's going to get put together before you even pick up the camera.

One final note --- Only in the last 10 years is this even possible. Back in the old days, of course, everyone had to shoot on film. That would increase the budget by a factor of 50. We could never tackle a project like this without digital video --- we can do everything ourselves for free! Vive le Mac...

Friday, November 25, 2005


Here is a really good collection of essays that Fermilab itself has created to explain the concept of luminosity, which I attempted to do here. I recommend you read these, if you're curious to find out more about exactly what Fermilab does via the Tevatron, and, as they say, "why we've recently gotten better at producing it." This is, I think, part of the reason Ben is getting more excited and optimistic.

But, on the other hand, great things can hit snags, and recently (Monday) the Tevatron hit a big one. They had what's called a "quench," which we heard about briefly when we visited the Main Control room. From what I understand, a quench is something that happens when one of the superconducting magnets overheats and shuts down, stopping the entire cycle of protons and anti-protons as they race around the ring. The movement of those protons and anti-protons is guided by the magnets, like train tracks might guide a train in a circle. More accurately, it would be like one of those magnetic trains that doesn't actually come into contact with the rails.

What does this mean? Since we've begun filming, this is the first time the Tevatron has quenched. According to Fermilab Today, the Tevatron will be down for 10 days. A significant event, but not really one that impacts our story much --- in a way, it's sort of like a car getting a flat tire. It's unfortunate, it's annoying, and it's very inconvenient, but you fix it and get on the road again. If I'm right, Bob Mau and his crew in the Control Room are scrambling to get the Tevatron back online, but if we ask very many questions, they would probably shrug and say "it happens. You fix it and move on."

So this places us in a slightly unsure position. We'd like to get coverage of this event, but at the same time it doesn't necessarily add much to our story. To pursue it as a moment of crisis I think would be disingenuous, and if we swoop in with cameras blazing it might cause us to appear as the documentarian equivalent of ambulance chasers. On the other hand, it IS a moment of drama in our tale of the Tevatron --- but somehow I'm not getting personally very excited about it. It is an unusual but fairly routine occurance.

I think a hotter thread on the story is this recent surge in the Tevatron's ability to produce luminosity. This is more relevent to our story, it feeds the science arm of our film, and it makes the notion that the Tevatron will soon shut down slightly more bittersweet. Remember when the Hubble space telescope was slated for destruction? Imagine if in the last year or two it suddenly increased it's ability to see more clearly into deep space. It would make the notion of letting it burn up in the atmosphere seem more senseless. That's the way we feel about the Tevatron, despite the fact that CERN will be able to do ten times as much science: why shut it down when it is suddenly getting better and stronger? (FYI, the decision to shut down the Hubble is very similar to the decision to shut down the Tevatron: budget cuts by the President. Monica has suggested making this link more direct in our film; something we are considering.)

In fact, that's the same reasoning behind Fermilab's recent decision to extend the current run of the Tevatron. Normally, the accelerator gets shut down every November so they can get inside, do repairs, upgrade things, and generally brush out the cobwebs. They keep it offline for about 6 weeks, then fire it back up again. We were present when they achieved the startup (although I looked back and saw that I didn't write an entry about that... might have to write one after the fact) and run it for 10 months. Our film was designed to run for a complete start-up to shut-down cycle -- a year in the life, if you will. But not long ago they determined that the Tevatron was running so well and luminosity was so high that they'd be crazy to shut it down. They moved the maintenance shut down date to March 1 --- we plan to keep shooting until then, although it doesn't tie the bow so neatly to shoot for 15 months instead of one year. On the other hand, this builds a little momentum, especially where Ben is concerned...

As a final thought, I apologize for the dearth of posts in the late summer. But hopefully you readers are following along again --- so write in with some comments! I love to read your thoughts. And share this blog with anyone you think might find it interesting --- feel free to post links to it wherever and whenever. As always, thanks for reading...

Monday, November 21, 2005


In a project this long, the filmmaker has to do a lot of emails that essentially say, "Hello! Remember us? What are you doing?" I've been sending some of these emails out recently to our main characters. After nearly 12 months, we have to have a strong constitution when it becomes clear that we're not nearly as high on their priority list as they are on ours. In fact, it's safe to say we're no longer on anyone's priority list, and we have to find the balance between being annoying and persistent.

Luckily, over the last few months we've developed a good relationship with a few people who respond with enthusiasm. One is Ben, the experimental physicist and lead singer of the Fermilab band. He, more than anyone, seems to still have the fire burning in his belly to find the Higgs. He wrote back to say that recent developments have made him more confident than ever that they will find the Higgs --- not now, he cautioned, but within 2 or 3 years. He is preparing a report on his Higgs analysis that will be presented in January. My goal is to meet with him now to discuss his new-found optimism and then to be there in January when his analysis is presented and "blessed."

The fact that film will be finished before the "two or three years" has expired when Ben thinks they might find the Higgs doesn't pose a problem for me. While obviously it would be nice for a major discovery to be made during our filming, leaving the film with that question unanswered works ---- especially in light of America's current relationship with science. I'm convinced it will engage the viewer more, and perhaps pique enough curiosity that the average person, the person who before the film said "I don't really understand anything about science" might come away from the film and in a month or two think "hmmm... I wonder if they found the Higgs boson yet?" That to me would be an unqualified success.

I don't know ... maybe that makes me optimistic too.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Taking stock

Monica and I met at Le Peep yesterday, as we often do to discuss the project. It has been a slow second-half of the summer for the Atom Smashers --- and, I must confess, Monica, Andrew, Stef and I have been flung in different directions as of late. Monica has written and produced a play in Arizona (after all, she is a playwright before being a filmmaker), Stef has been in China documenting ancient burial caves, Andrew has been juggling 137 Films and several other free-lance projects, and I have been teaching at Northwestern and tweaking a short film that will be produced next May with the incredible assistance of IFP Chicago who awarded me a big fat Production Fund Grant. Both Andrew and Stef will be working with me on that project.

But back to The Atom Smashers: we now have approximately 125 hours of footage, and this will total out at around 160. Things have been quiet on the Fermilab front of late, but we will now enter into our final phase, where we schedule a final round of interviews with our main characters and prepare for the last technical moment of the film: capturing the "shutdown" of the Tevatron for scheduled maintenance. This was originally scheduled for November, but they have decided to extend the run through January since it has been performing so well. We need to make the arrangements to be in three locations at once: in the Main Control Room, in CDF, and in D0.

As well, we will soon begin the editing process, which in truth should have started by now. On Thursday Monica will begin digitizing the footage to hard drive. Once all 160 hours have been captured to hard drive, we will begin logging and transcribing. Anyone have a few hundred hours to kill?

As all this footage is being logged, we'll have an idea where we are and what we have and don't have. Sometime in January or February we'll consider any additional footage we need. One of Monica's short films is playing in Washington DC in February, so we might take another trip there to interview Natalie Angier, the New York Times journalist we weren't able to connect with on our first trip. My guess is that we'll try to hook up with Hastert and some others whom we missed as well.

In the meantime, we'll be fundraising like crazy since we've got a couple of thousand dollars of expenses to pay off by March. Ulp.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Dr. Lederman, Redux

Yesterday we spoke again with Dr. Lederman, former head of Fermilab and Nobel Laureate. This time he agreed to let us come to his house, although in our initial email contacts he didn't seem keen on letting us in. We agreed to speak with him outside.

His house is over 100 years old, and is a beautiful white farmhouse on the Fermilab grounds, not too far from the D0 detector. The address? 137 Eola. Yes, he deliberately chose that number (somewhere in this blog I think I have described the significance of the number 137, but exactly where eludes me at the moment). We sat out on his porch in the waning hours of the beautiful fall evening, and luckily I had brought some lights because by the time the interview was over it was nearly dark outside. Ladybugs were drifting into the lights from time to time and sizzling --- occasionally a little puff of smoke indicated one of them had met nirvana.

We were speaking with Dr. Lederman again to get his ideas about what had transpired since we last spoke if February. I remember it clearly --- it was February 7, my birthday, and the day the budget cut went down, ending the life of the bTev experiment and putting a definite cap on the life of the Tevatron. As well, over the summer, the Tevatron had hit record luminosity (meaning it did a record number of collisions), so we wanted to get his feedback on everything that had transpired. As always, he was well-spoken, compelling, and interesting, although he did seem a little more tired. And, disappointingly, he had absolutely no memory that we had ever spoken! I chalk that up to the fact that he must be interviewed all the time, because the thought that we were so absolutely un-memorable is not a particularly pleasant one.

Thursday, September 1, 2005


... for a complete refutation of nearly everything I just said by someone who is clearly much smarter than I will ever be, Errol Morris says there is such a thing as Truth. As much as I complain about him, he is a pretty amazing filmmaker. And he makes some of the funniest commercials I've ever seen.

We're all cheaters (part II)

Why am I bringing this up? Because I'm planning to cheat in our documentary. But I certainly won't be the first to do it.

If you haven't seen Murderball, the documentary about wheelchair-bound rugby players, you should. Without saying too much about it, I'll tell you that the film follows the USA wheelchair rugby team, and one of their star players is a charismatic guy named Zukan. The film follows another young man, a motocross rider who recently was injured in a motorcycle accident and was feeling very despondent. The film showed him arriving home for the first time and sinking into depression.

One of Zukan's activities is to go to hospitals around the country and talk to young people with recent spinal injuries. He brings along his "Mad Max" style rugby wheelchair and plays a video showing just how extreme and aggressive the sport is.

About two-thirds of the way through, Zukan visits the hospital where our newly injured young man is attending a meeting with other wheelchair victims. It's a great moment --- we see the fire light up in his eyes, and we see how the recovering motorcycle speed-freak might enjoy the speed and aggression of wheelchair rugby.

After the movie was over, the person I was with said "it's amazing how lucky the filmmakers were! Do you think they knew the motorcycle guy and the rugby guy were going to cross paths like that? It looked like they were following them for months before they ever met."

Sometimes it's fun to know how these things work. If I'm not mistaken, here's how it happened:

1) the filmmakers found a good, compelling character in Zukan. They followed him around. One of the places he went was to a hospital to show his wheelchair and talk about rugby to newly-injured guys in wheelchairs.

2) they saw a particular guy's eyes light up. They watched him get excited. They got it on tape.

3) after they were done filming, they asked the guy if they could talk to him some more, and if he would mind being in this movie they were making. He said, "sure."

4) they spent a lot of time with him, interviewing him, following him home when he was released, watching him get depressed after seeing how his new life would go. They got old pictures of him riding the motorcycle and got the rights to use his home movies from his motorcycle days.

5) They finished shooting all the footage they needed.

6) In the editing room, the editor said "hmmm... wouldn't it be better if we made it seem as though our motorcycle guy did his physical therapy, came home, got depressed, and THEN met Zukan? As though we had been following him for quite a while before he crossed paths with Zukan?

I posed that hypothesis to my friend who blinked and looked a little taken aback. "But is that the truth?" she said.

Aha --- here we are again. Is it the truth? Technically no. Is that a problem? It depends on what you believe a documentary is. 15 years ago, certainly 30 years ago, yeah, that would have been a problem. Post Errol Morris, post Michael Moore, post reality-TV, well, nope, it ain't.

Because in a way, the answer to that question is, yes, it is the truth. My guess is, when both of those guys saw the film they said, "that's not the way it happened." If you were standing there when they said that and followed up by saying "but does it represent what happened? Is it true emotionally? Does it get the idea across?" My guess is they'd think for a minute and say "yeah, actually, it does."

This is a big shift from the way docs used to be. Telling the emotional truth instead of the factual truth? Changing the chronology of events in order to be more honest about the big picture? Pretty new ideas for quote-unquote Non-Fiction Film.

One of the things this does is to shift more responsibility to the viewer. The filmmaker, in a sense, is saying "hey, I never said I was going to tell THE TRUTH. I'm telling a truth. Didn't you get that memo? It's up to you to figure out what to do with it." It's the viewer's job now to understand that nothing s/he sees on the screen can be relied upon to be THE TRUTH, and in fact that was never the case. Nowadays, we're just a little more honest about it.

Or, at least, smart consumers of documentary film are. Those who still feel as though non-fiction film really means NON FICTION film probably wonder where all the Voice Over talent has gone. So, let this serve as your notice, if you haven't figured it out already.

Which brings me (finally, please) to my point: if all goes as planned in the editing room this winter, I'll be cheating. This summer, Fermilab was suffering from the drought in a way that no one expected. In order to keep all those super-conducting magnets cool, Fermilab uses a circular river that runs above the four-mile long underground accelerator. When the drought happened, the river and all the other stand-by ponds got dangerously low. There was talk about shutting down the tevatron because of overheating! In a story wrought with difficulties (budget cuts, international competition, overworked equipment) the idea that mother nature is conspiring to add her own straw to the camel's back is pretty hard to resist. The only problem is we had no idea this was happening until it was no longer a problem. So, I plan to add this story element back into the story --- to find evidence build a case, a possibly interview someone as if they were experiencing the drought right then and back-date it. What? Is that ethical? Is that THE TRUTH?

The answer, of course, is yes, and no. If it pans out that way, when you see it in your local Cineplex (in my dreams) you can walk out with your companion with a little twinkle in your eye, just waiting, waiting, until s/he says "isn't it amazing how they were so in touch with all the events that happened throughout the course of the year?" You can say "well, actually..."

Then let's have a cup of coffee and discuss the ethics of Non-Fiction filmmaking. I'll be VERY eager to know what you think.

We're all cheaters (part I)

Eliz, our fund development coordinator, is traveling to Cyprus soon. She's a researcher when it comes to traveling, and has been investigating Cyprus. Just yesterday she commented that she had seen two documentaries on Cyprus, and that they were the two worst documentaries ever made (a little hyperbole, sure). As she said, "just be glad the doc has come a long way since 1975."

It's true: the documentary has been completely re-invented since then. In fact, the bulk of this transformation has occured in the last 15 years. While we might take this for granted now, we must remember that not that long ago it wasn't really possible to conceive a documentary without at least a narrator, and very likely an on-screen narrator at that. If you were to go back and ask one of those documentarians what they were trying to do, they would look at you strangely and say "we're telling the Truth, of course." (and yes, you could definitely hear that capital T).

A couple of years ago I was watching one of the several documentaries about Leni Riefenstahl. This one had been made in the mid-80s. In the first couple of minutes, after setting up the complicated network of contradictions and long controversial history of Riefenstahl's artistic life, a voice-over proclaimed

"Many films have been made about Leni Riefenstahl, but none so comprehensive as this. We will navigate the conflicting information and tell THE TRUTH about this complicated artist and her life."

The truth?

Perhaps the most important double development in the field of documentary filmmaking was when doc makers finally looked in the mirror and had the following dialog with their reflections:

"Actually, no, I'm not telling THE TRUTH. In fact, there is no TRUTH. There is A truth; in fact, there are many truths. I as a filmmaker --- heck, as a person --- can only see my version of the truth. So I should stop pretending that my documentary is the truth. It's actually just my perspective. It's not objective at all."

Then the doc maker walked away, had a cup of coffee, thought about things, and came back to the mirror.

"You know what? As long as I'm not pretending to tell "THE TRUTH" anymore, I guess that means I'm telling a STORY. Hmmm --- I've always secretly wanted to make fiction films. Why can't I apply a lot of the same filmmaking techniques to my documentary --- hereafter known as my NON-FICTION STORY --- that they use in fiction filmmaking? Hey!!"

First thing you know, a lot of voice-over actors were in the unemployment line. Next thing you know, doc filmmakers were overheard talking about "character development," "story line," "plot point," and "point of view." Then they were hiring dollys and cranes and huge crews to get beautiful, dramatic shots. Editors were overheard talking about the transition between the first and second acts, and producers were wrangling copyright fees for just the right mood-building music.

This direction surged out of control temporarily (re: Errol Morris.) but innovative and smart people soon realized they had an amazing art form on their hands (re: Kartemquin) and the notion of documentary filmmaking was changed forever.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Cool it!

The last time I interviewed Ben Kilminster, the young physicist who's in the rock band, he was wearing a "Bad Mo Fo" T-shirt and talking big about Fermilab's chances to find the Higgs boson.

Originally uploaded by 137 Films.

Possibly he was swaggering a little, since he was about an hour from the big rock show at the Fermilab User's Center where he would be the lead singer, compelling a dance floor full of young, blonde physicists from South America to start shakin' it up. It was great for the camera. He said something like "if we find it, we'll be right on the edge. We might be able to grab the steak just as the Europeans are about to throw it on the grill." A great metaphor.

So, other than impending stardom, what had gotten Ben so fiesty? Why was he suddenly a little more confident in the aging Tevatron's ability to find the Higgs?

He mentioned that electron cooling, something experimental and in the works on the other side of the Fermilab grounds for about 10 years now, had kicked in and was having an effect. If all went well, this would double Fermilab's luminosity (remember, that's essentially the number of collisions they can create --- how many atoms they smash together. The more atoms that get smashed, the more chances they have to find something). Let me say that again: it would DOUBLE the chances to find something. That's pretty big.

How would it do this?

A month or two ago, we were hanging out with John Conway in the detector control room. There was a little black and white monitor that he said they keep checking all day. Essentially, there were two numbers they checked on. One number was the amount of protons, and the other number was the amount of anti-protons.

Why are these numbers so important? Because protons and anti-protons are the things that the Tevatron smashes together. These are the "atoms" in "Atom-Smasher". There's only one problem: the Tevatron can make all the protons it could ever need. They're cheap and easy (as Leon Lederman said, you just go down to Ace Hardware and buy a bottle of Hydrogen, send it through a spark, and you've got protons galore). Remember the cockroft_walton? That great-looking machine that looks like it came from the pages of a Flash Gordon comic book? That's where they make the protons.

But --- making anti-protons is very tough, and it's even tougher to keep them around. Imagine that you're got a reality TV show that features red and blue cars smashing together in the desert. You've got plenty of red cars, but for some reason the blue cars are extremely difficult to make. So you've got lots of red car drivers sitting around, just waiting for a blue car to show up so they can smash into it. Not very efficient. You're starting to lose a lot of viewers to "Survivor."

Electron cooling is like an invention that allows twice as many blue cars to roll out of the factory. Suddenly you can smash twice as many cars in the desert! Ratings soar! Electron cooling can double the amount of anti-protons, thereby doubling the amount of atom smashes that take place in the tevatron. That's good news --- with twice as many collisions come twice as much data, and twice the chances to make a discovery. That's why Ben was exhibiting a little bravado that day before his big rock show.

So Monica and I went down to talk to the guy who had been in charge of this process for ten years --- Sergei Naigetsev. He took us over to the place where the electron cooling happened --- it's a small building with a big tall cylinder inside. The short version of how it works is that they cool the rowdy anti-protons with a calming, sensible beam of electrons. Once they are cooled off a little, they are easier to manage and last longer, and can get packed into the tevatron tighter. We got some nice shots, and he told the story about how he was on a camping trip when the process was officially proven. He was scrambling around on a sand dune with his cell phone, trying to get a signal, heart pounding with the news. That's a nice image.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

"What's your film about?"

"So, what's your film about?"

If you're an artist of some sort, or a maker of media, you tend to get a certain question over and over and over. If you're a writer, when people find out what you do they usually ask "what type of books do you write?" If you're in a band, of course, it's "what kind of music do you play?" Painters get "so, what are your paintings like?" It can be a difficult question for any artist, because what they're working on is often complicated and personal. Most of the time it's easier to play a cut from your cd or show one of your sketches. But a filmmaker can't exactly haul around a theater, and a full-length documentary can be hard to explain in a few sentences.

And yet, filmmakers must answer that question in a clear, compelling way, often in three sentences. Because often that answer is the basis on which a potential viewer decides whether or not to watch the film, or a potential funder decides whether or not to cut you a check. On a blog like this I've got a little more room to expound my ideas, so I'm giving you the 50 cent version.

The truth is, our film is a story about three things, all wrapped up together.

1) Searching for a key puzzle piece in the quest to understand the universe.

An article in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago by Ronald Kotulak described a certain laboratory in suburban Chicago that was in a race to find one of the most important things in the universe. It was a particle that would explain how and why everything had mass, taking us one huge step closer to a full understanding of how the universe worked. This particle is called the Higgs boson. As Mr. Kotulak put it so intriguingly,

"Finding the Higgs particle has become the greatest goal in physics. It will help scientists figure out why the universe is made of something instead of nothing, why there are atoms, people, planets, stars and galaxies. But it also will do much more than that. It will open a door to a hidden world of physics, where scientists hope to find unimagined wonders that will make relativity and quantum mechanics seem like Tinker Toys."

Now, this is a story about science, true. But it's the story of a search --- a search with high stakes. Even if the science doesn't grab you, if none of it makes any sense to you, our intention is to convey the power and the urgency of this search in a way that everyone can understand. But our hope is that the science will speak to you, on some level, because truths about the universe can be incredibly beautiful.

Not only that, but the search is also a race. A bigger, faster, better lab is opening up in Europe. Fermilab has only a couple of years left to solve the mystery, find the particle, and send its physicists to Sweden to claim the Nobel prize.

There's a problem, though. Fermilab is old and money is tight. This brings us to...

2) Fermilab is old, money is tight, and everything is politics. And does anyone care about science?

During the course of our shooting, this point was underscored by some devastating budget cuts which doomed the lab to close in 2009. A few months later, there were rumors of an even earlier closing date, perhaps in 2007. Many of our scientists expressed doubts about the current administration's commitment to their field, and expressed real concern about the role of science in America's future. We wanted to explore that story, too. So we talked to politicians and journalists about the specifics of this budget cut, the administration's attitude towards science, and what the funding cuts mean for the future of Fermilab.

How can Fermilab find the Higgs without support from Washington? Can Fermilab make its case to stay in business past 2007?

And, incidentally, what does the American Public think of all this? After all, the administration was elected by the rest of us.

While the physicists at Fermilab are moving closer to a deep and amazing understanding of the universe, it could be argued that America seems to be moving in different direction. A scientific search must be grounded in a context, and the context for our film is the United States in 2005. Culturally, our nation is becoming more and more conservative. Conservatives are in control of all aspects of the government, and social and moral conservatives are flexing their muscles all across the country. This can be seen in school districts from coast to coast that are under pressure to challenge the teaching of evolution with "intelligent design." This demonstrates a determination on the part of a growing percentage of our population to replace science with belief, a notion encouraged by the president in recent remarks. Scientists have been dismayed at the administration's misuse and misrepresentation of scientific results and analyses. As mentioned earlier, Fermilab's kind of science (pure research), once the crown jewel of America's science program, has fallen behind, squeezed by increases in research for defense. Fewer and fewer students are studying science, and America is forced to import many scientists, although that process itself has been impacted by strict immigration rules after September 11, 2001. With the impending closing of Fermilab's accelerator, most young physicists are itching to relocate to Europe, leading many to speculate about an impending "brain drain."

These issues are happening now, and will greatly impact America's future. They will certainly impact Fermilab's future, and all the people working there. Which brings us to...

3) The people searching for the Higgs boson.

No story is worth watching, reading, or listening to without compelling characters. When we were first discussing this project and doing our initial research, our scientific advisor said "you're at the right place. All the major people are here. And they're all really interesting, too." That was good news for us, because from the beginning our intention is to give another dimension to the "scientist" talking head that you see on NOVA or in interviews on the news. What do these people do when they're not searching for the Higgs boson? What do they think about? Our scientists have been learning the tango, playing in rock bands, attending the opera, playing volleyball, flying remote-control model airplanes, and rollerblading around the ring.

This is how our film will be different from other films about science --- it's also and equally about people and culture. One of our potential funders asked us "why aren't you submitting this to NOVA? Why isn't this a standard PBS science documentary?" Our answer is that we plan to tell this story through the people we meet, whether it's the polo-playing physicist from Argentina, the continent-hopping physicist newlyweds, or the young lead-singer in the Fermilab band who was voted "most likely to be a rock-star" in high school.

Or the character of the Tevatron itself --- Fermilab's aging yet still remarkable 4-mile particle accelerator.

Which brings up the final aspect of our story...

We are constructing this film over the course of one year. Fermilab shuts down the accelerator every October for maintenance and upgrades, and fires it up again in December to run continuously for 10 months. Our film will cover the course from startup to shutdown --- every month exploring the relationship between the search for the Higgs, the culture in which that search takes place, and the people involved in the search. A longer story will emerge from these monthly snapshots, raising questions about Fermilab's future, America's evolving relationship with science, and our understanding of the universe in which we live.

OK, OK, I've got a lot of work to do. Three sentences... whew.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Brown Shirt and Crazy Pants

Yesterday we were scheduled to interview Congresswoman Judy Biggert, a Republican representative from Illinois. I wanted to speak to her because she was a Republican, she was chair of the Energy sub-committee of the Science committee, and because she had spoken out against the budget Bush released as being "counter-intuitive." Our plan was to meet on the Capitol steps (Andrew and I were coming from a hotel, Monica was staying with friends) at 10:30. Having to lug all our gear for a couple of miles down streets and in and out of the Metro stations, Andrew and I were running late. As we were huffing it towards the Capitol, I got a text message from Monica:

"Get here! I am being watched! Here they come!"

Andrew and I finally arrived, but were on the wrong side of the Capitol. There were guards and tourists, and I got out the camera to get some shots of the building and down the Mall towards the Washington monument. I called Monica and she said the guards had been circling over on her side. She had mentioned something to them about waiting for the camera crew, and had given them the shpiel about being part of a documentary group, blah blah blah. It sounded like the "business end" of the Capitol was on Monica's side, so we headed over there.

On this side there were limos, men and women in dark suits and ID tags walking quickly in and out, and occaisional smiling politician posing on the steps with a visiting special interest group (that day it was several hundred blue-jacketed Future Farmers of America), and more guards. Up on the stairs were a couple of guards with semi-automatic rifles and mirrored sunglasses. Naturally, I pulled out the camera and started shooting. Right away, of course, a group of three guards came over. To their credit, they were all pretty nice. Even relaxed.

"What are you guys up to?" One of them said. I told them. He nodded and asked a couple of questions about the documentary, actually sounding a little interested. "We saw you on the other side," he said. Monica was right, they had been watching us. I think he was bored and a little diversion was always welcome. I asked about setting up the tripod and ran into an example of procedure trumping common sense.

"No tripods," they all said. "If you want to use a tripod you have to get a permit."

OK, how do you get a permit?

"You can give me your name and I can contact the sargeant of arms and set up an appointment. Usually takes about five days."

Five days?


But, it was OK to use the same camera without the tripod. Sure, I can understand that they don't want someone setting up a rifle on a tripod to get a good shot at something. But here I am, holding a video camera, not a rifle. Put it on the tripod: ALERT! Take it off the tripod: yawn.

Anyway, I packed up the tripod and walked off to get some wider shots (I actually used a big orange traffic cone as a makeshift tripod). While I was gone, another guard, this one big, bald, and more uptight, came over by Monica and Andrew with a walkie-talkie. Monica heard him say "I'm standing over here by Brown Shirt. Yeah. Over." Monica looked down. Yep, she was wearing a brown shirt. Then the guard said in a not-so-quiet voice, pointing in my general direction. "Is she with Crazy Pants?"

Crazy Pants?

The other guard nodded. Monica, extremely amused, asked the guard who had been speaking conversationally with us, "did I hear right? Did he just call my co-director 'crazy pants?'" The guard looked a little embarassed and said, softly, "some of these guys are a little more hard-core than others."

But, Crazy Pants??

When she related this to me, I must confess I looked at myself in the mirror every time I went into the bathroom. My pants were black, cotton, nothing special. Monica and Andrew both assured me there was nothing special about my pants.

It does highlight the different world we live in now --- Monica said she remembers a time when anyone could just walk in to the Capitol, go right up to the observation gallery and watch them on the house or the senate floor, and even walk right into the office of your representative or senator. Just walk right in. If you tried that now, they would shut down the capitol and you'd be arrested. Not that you'd ever get that close, with semi-automatic rifles, guards, and their keen powers of observation. They've got you pegged from the moment you step near the Capitol.

But, really. Crazy Pants???

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

On the Potomac

I'm sitting in the lobby of our little hotel. Today we interviewed John Marburger, the president's science advisor. He was sincere and honest, although, understandably, at times a mouthpiece for the administration. It was interesting to hear particle physics put in a large context, though --- he said "when you're working on a project, of course it's the most important project in the world. When it gets canceled, of course you think it's the worst thing that could have happened. But there are other things more relevant to human progress than particle physics." Yesterday we heard from our physicists from Fermilab as they argued for continued funding for Fermilab at a High Energy Physics Advisory Panel meeting --- I don't think they would have appreciated the kind of marginalizing rhetoric that Marburger employed, but it will be an interesting spot for the viewer of our movie in which to find him/herself: so, what is the importance of particle physics? Why should I care?

And, of course, that's one of the main questions we will be asking.

Also got some B-roll of the white house, to locate us here. Tomorrow we meet with Judy Biggert, a senator from Illinois, and the chairwoman of the science subcommittee, followed by Chris Mooney, a journalist specializing in the intersection between science and politics. Alas, Natalie Angier had to cancel due to a family emergency, and House Speaker Hastert had to cancel due to his schedule.

Must get to bed now --- more later.

Monday, July 11, 2005

DC, here we come

Today Andrew and I fly out for Washington DC. Monica drove out over the weekend, so she's already there. We've got several interviews scheduled, so it should be a busy three days. It's an amazing statement of electronic engineering to say that everything (our camera, our lights, our sound gear, and our video tapes) can fit into one medium-sized rolling suitcase. Add the tripod and you have an incredibly portable rig. At this fidelity, this was not possible even 10 years ago.

Wish us luck...!

I'll try to post once or twice from the road.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

At last, and pictures

I apologize for the strange spacing --- I can't quite figure out the html code to make this neater.

We managed to get the tiny wireless video camera strapped into place on the wing. Dr. Zager brought along a couple of strips of velcro, which he mounted perfectly on the right side. He and Andreas, the Swedish Physicist, devised a terrific plan to acquire the shot we wanted.

If you remember, I was looking for a shot of the Fermilab hi-rise (the main building in the facility) from the air (see "bird's eye view - sort of"). The plane that they strapped the camera to belonged to the Barnstormer's club, and was what they call a "trainer." This is sort of like the cars that they used in Driver's Ed in high school, the ones with the extra brake on the instructor's side. There were two remote control consoles wired together. One of them was the "trainer" console and the other was for the student. The trainer could assign control to the student and then take it back in an emergency (such as a nose-dive).

It was Andreas' idea to try to fly the airplane by watching the video feed --- in other words, he was going to sit at the picnic table with one eye smashed against the viewfinder of the video camera and fly the plane by, in essence, looking through the wireless camera on the wing. Imagine mounting a video camera on the hood of a car and trying to drive by watching the feed on a TV. Heck, it's basically a video game.

Anyway, Dr. Zager had the trainer console and they took it up in the air. After about 10 minutes they started to get the hang of it. We heard a lot of "Do I have it?" "You have it." "OK, I'm taking it back." "Do you have it?" "Do you want it?" "Give it to me." "No, I've got it." "Take it!" "Where is it?" "Who has it?" It was really quite exciting. And I think we got our shot. They had a lot of fun, and are extremely excited to get the footage from the flight.

Jim Zager, Barnstormers president, prepping the plane

The camera, mounted with velcro
Andreas, aka "The Swedish Physicist"
The plane, ready to fly

Here are some pictures from CDF, which is the huge building that houses one of the two detectors. The detectors are located on opposite sides of the 4-mile ring, and they are two spots where the protons crash into the anti-protons. In a sense, the detector is like a giant MRI tunnel. The collisions happen (millions per second) and the giant donut shape takes "pictures" of the resulting sub-atomic debris. These pictures are some of the more photogenic equipment we found in there...

I'm sure there must have been a plan
I don't know why they need liquid helium, but they do
Beautiful, in its own way
The Control room in the detector, where they monitor the collisions. Not to be confused with the Main Control Room, where they run the entire accelerator and where we got yelled at (see "trouble in the control room"
The Control Room, wide shot

Sunday, July 3, 2005

Andrew comes through

Andrew, as I said, has been working furiously to prepare for our trip to Washington D.C. While Monica and I were interviewing the Fermilab archivist, Monica's cell phone beeped with a text-message. It was from Andrew. "We got Marburger!"

John Marburger is President Bush's science advisor. It's a little daunting to think we'll be speaking to a fairly high-ranking member of the Bush Administration...

It's amazing what you can accomplish if you just ask. Plus, Andrew writes a mean email.

PS we achieved radio-controlled airplane cinematography. Images to come.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

tomatoes, barns, and champagne

Just a quick update, with a more detailed one to come early next week.

Last Friday we attended the celebration of a Tevatron milestone, complete with champagne and speeches: they had achieved One Inverse Femtobarn.


That's what we thought. We asked a few physicists there "so, what is luminosity? And what's an inverse femtobarn?" We got a lot of "uhh, well... um... kind of complicated... let's just say it's a lot of collisions..." etc. In other words, they didn't want to get into a 30 minute lecture on something too complicated for us to understand.

As you hopefully know by now (if not, rest assured in the next couple of posts I'll be giving a layman's primer on how a supercollider works), Fermilab smashes protons together and looks at what happens from the collision. As I've said earlier, scientists hate exceptions and love trends, so the more collisions the better to base their conclusions on. And, of course, they count (or rather, a network of computers counts) the number of collisions they achieve.

In this "run," which is called "Run II" and started in June 2001, they have now achieved a huge amount of collisions. Millions. But, rather than just listing the number of collisions, they use a very complicated method of measuring, which I will attempt to summarize here, quoting liberally from an article in the Stanford newspaper (

At dinner one night in December 1942, physicists M. G. Holloway and C. P. Parker were lamenting the lack of a catchy unit name for discussing the size of an atomic nucleus of uranium. They considered naming a unit of this area "the Oppenheimer" or "the Bethe," after physicists leading a project involving uranium cross sections.

Since Holloway and Parker were on the campus of Purdue University in Indiana, the barn, a dominant feature of Midwestern U.S. farmlands, naturally came to mind.

This is appropriate for Fermilab, since there are lots of barns on the property. Some of them, in fact, were imported from other farm locations. And don't forget the buffalo.

So, we know where the "barn" of "femtobarn" comes from. Now for the "femto."

Start with a half. We all know what that means. Then, a quarter, an eighth, a 100th, etc. Remember scientific notation? 10 to the negative 2 means you move the decimal to the left by 2 places, resulting in 0.1, or one tenth. "Femto" means a factor of 10 to the negative 15th: or 0.00000000000001, or a thousandth of a millionth of a millionth. A femtobarn, then, is a thousandth of a millionth of a millionth of the nucleus of an atom of uranium. Said another way, that's 10 to the negative 39 square centimeters --- an incomprehensibly small unit of area.

Still with me? Here comes one of those great scientific analogies that can make everything make sense.

Imagine you throw enough tomatoes at a barn to get an average of two tomato hits per square foot. If the barn door is 10 feet by 15 feet, then the cross section for tomato-barn door interactions is 150 square feet, and the number of tomatoes that splat on the door is given by:

150 square feet x 2 tomatoes per square foot = 300 tomato interactions.

So, that's what Fermilab does, except it replaces square feet with femtobarns and tomatoes with protons.


I don't really get it either. Let's just say it's a lot of collisions. (I invite Dr. Oreglia, our science advisor, to comment).

More later, including our third attempt at getting our wireless video camera aloft tomorrow and hopefully meeting the new incoming director, Pierre Odonne.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Listening, dancing, and nano-seconds

A weekend full of tango. On Friday night Monica and I went to a tango club in River North, sort of a warehouse district here in Chicago. It was very quiet at first, and then a series of nice cars quietly began arriving and unloading nicely dressed men and women in stiletto heels. We set up and got some footage, but all in all the place was dark, crowded, our time was limited, and we might not use much of it.

However, the next night, we went to the home of Dr. Marcela Carena, Argentinian tango-dancing, polo-riding (and, as we found out Friday, hang-gliding) theoretical physicist. It was great--- there were two instructors there and a house full of couples. They had cleared out the living room and dining room, and a cd full of music was playing in the background. After a glass of wine, couples started shuffling to the dance floor to "warm up." They danced slowly, occasionally stopping to quietly ask each other "does my foot go there, or there?" After about 30 minutes, the lesson began. The instructors, a male and a female, demonstrated, coached, cajoled, critiqued, praised, and encouraged. They split the group into halves and made them swap partners and made everyone watch a particularly successful couple. Marcela and her husband were working on a particularly slow move in which Marcela dragged a toe in a circle on the floor ... they were working on the timing of when Carlos would move his shoulders and go to the next point in the dance.

As Monica pointed out, the Tango is a complex dance of relationships --- it's all about shifting control, about leading and following. There is often a certain amount of tension between the two dancers; in fact, one version of the dance involves what looks like a gentle shoving match between the man and the woman. There are complicated steps, moves, postures and poses that can look effortless when a skilled couple is on the floor but for the rest of us could feel a bit like a math equation set to music.

It turned out that nearly everyone in the room was a physicist --- even the male teacher! During a break in the evening, I asked Marcela if physicists made good dancers. She immediately laughed and said, definitively, "no." She said physicists were often too procedural --- because the Tango is a series of steps, a sequence, physicists often latch onto that far too strongly, since it's in their nature and their work to do so. "That makes it difficult for them to listen, to feel the dance," she said. Another female physicist from South America (the instructors were the only Americans present, besides us) was standing nearby and said "the men don't make good dancers. The women are much better." They both laughed but pressed the point. The men get hung up on procedure and sequence worse than the women, it seemed. "They perform this series of steps no matter what," the other physicist said, "even if the music is doing something completely different. They don't always listen."

"It's all about listening," Marcela said. "Not just listening to the music, but listening to the other person." The male, traditionally, leads the dance. But as Marcela explained, that doesn't mean the male decides what to do and the female just follows. "The leader of the dance, in a sense, asks permission for a move. Can I do this? And the female responds yes or no. The leader has to listen with his body, responding to the moves and communication of his partner. And all of it happens non-verbally, in a nano-second."

So, what does this have to do with the Higgs boson? Why are we filming physicists dancing?

There are ways a filmmaker can tell a story, or make a point, and there are ways for a filmmaker to find moments in which the story tells itself. Those are usually the better moments in a film. For me, that evening in Marcela's house was one of those moments. In addition to showing a terrific unexpected side to a theoretical physicist (what, you mean they don't just sit around writing equations all day?), the Tango itself became a really nice metaphor. The idea that there is tension between the partners who are dancing together is very apt for our film, as there are many tension-filled dualities we've come across (Fermilab & CERN, high-energy physics and the Bush budget, the CDF & D0 detectors). Each of those pairings is engaged in a dance of sorts, pushing and pulling while trying to move in the same direction.

More important and interesting for me, though, is the idea Marcela spoke of: a delicate balancing act between the procedure and the instinct that the physicists engage in while dancing the tango. While a rigorous search for anything involves a combination of hard work and intuition, the search for the Higgs boson carries this combination to an extreme level as it involves arguably the highest intellect AND the largest leap of faith of just about anything going. In a sense, like the Tango, such a search is the perfect meeting point of the left brain and the right brain, intellect and spirit, science and art (I found it very telling that Marcela and her friend theorized that women have an easier time with this). So for me, the search for the Higgs boson was beautifully encapsulated in this strange scene of dancing physicists struggling to remember their steps while trying to let the music move them, listening, listening, and all of it happening for the length of a song and in the space of a nano-second.

During the evening, Marcela's 4-year old son, Julius, was racing around, entertaining himself (the baby-sitter had failed to show up). At one point Julius was at the top of the stairs with his dad's cell phone, taking pictures of us. He kept telling us to say "cheese!" He started to get a little cranky and tired, and Marcela sat with him on the sofa for a few minutes, speaking softly and rapidly in Spanish to him. I could only make out a few words but it sounded as though she were explaining that they were dancing, and he was trying to tell her SHE needed to go to bed. She asked if he wanted to go to bed on the sofa. No. Where, then? He decided the recliner. They pulled it out and extended it, and Julius kept opening and closing the reclining chair as Marcela hit a second wind and went back to dancing. It was nearly midnight. Monica shook her head in amazement. "I don't see how she can do it all."

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Tango, anyone?

On Friday and Saturday we are scheduled to meet with the elusive Dr. Marcela Carena, an Argentinian theoretical physicist whom everyone describes as "fiesty," "dynamic," "full of life," "a real spitfire," or something similar. She's pretty amazing, and we've gotten footage of her in her office, in meetings, and on a horse taking polo lessons. When we first went to her house, we met her husband (a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, a facility nearby) and her two sons. The younger one (I can't think of his name) was about four, and apparently mistook me for someone from Fermilab and immediately grabbed my hand and wanted to show me his toys and have me watch a cartoon. He never left my side the whole time we were there.

On Friday we'll be in a club, where we expect some fancy footwork since Dr. Carena will be with her Tango instructor. On Saturday night we'll actually be at her house, where she teaches Tango lessons to other physicists from Fermilab. If you've been reading, you've seen me use the term "camera gold" before to refer to priceless moments that will almost certainly make the cut in the editing room (Robin Erbacher's red hard hat with her name in stick-on letters comes to mind). A room of physicists learning how to tango? Ahem.

Thanks to Tickmeister for asking some good followup questions about the budget. See those comments for more clarification. I'll try to make a post which concisely sums up the budget problems for Fermilab.

Our trip to Washington DC is in the planning stages for mid-July. We're interviewing a journalist named Chris Mooney --- he's built a career on writing about the Bush administration's relationship to science. Here's his site. Granted, he's a bit left of center. We'll be balancing that out with interviews we hope to get with Bush's science advisor, John Marburger, and the Department of Energy's Ray Orbach. Andrew is working on setting those up. Not an easy task. Now we just have to figure out how to pay for our airfare...

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Bird's eye view - not yet

If scientists are careful people, engineers are cautious people.

We went down to the Barnstormer's club official June meeting. We had two miniature wireless cameras and were ready to interview and send the cameras aloft. But weather intervened --- too much wind. And a bolt of lightning in the distance made the club president a little too nervous. "I'm not a risk-taker," he said. Engineers are cautious people (except the Swedish physicist. He was ready to go). They sure love our miniature spy video cameras, though.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

An audience with the chief

Dr. Michael Witherell is the outgoing head of Fermilab. A lot has happened on his watch: they discovered the Top Quark there (a huge milestone in particle physics), 9/11, and now a potentially devastating budget cut. He was very candid when we spoke with him --- one of the things we've had to get used to in making this documentary is what I've described in other posts: scientists who are accustomed to presenting perfect data. This affects how they think about interviewing, causing them to assume we want only clear ideas perfectly expressed. They strip away the rough edges and the emotions and the politics and the strange day to day oddities. In their defense, they spend a lifetime ignoring oddities (as Ben Kilminster told me, it's bad science to pay attention to exceptions) so it's only expected that they think that's what we would want, too. I mentioned in an earlier post the scientist whose career was devastated by the budget cut and refused to be interviewed because he thought he would become too emotional and couldn't conduct a calm interview with a clear presentation of the facts, which is what he thought we wanted.

Some scientists, though, really want to be on camera. After another interview that was not particularly riveting, our interviewee followed us out and asked what he could do to be a better interview subject. Apparently he could sense that it was not camera "gold" that we were getting.

I had to stop and think --- I didn't really know what to say. I realized it's very easy for us behind the camera to recognize what's working and what's not, but it's not so easy to explain how to get there to someone on the other side without sounding sensationalist. It made me realize how easy it is to step on that slippery slope towards being the camera that zooms in on the tears, that shows the close-up of the blood stain, that chases the victims and shoves a microphone in someone's face and says "how do you feel?" In our disappointment that the emotional scientist (see how fascinating that phrase sounds? Can you see why we're so obsessed with it?) didn't want to be on camera because he couldn't keep it together, there's a twinge of guilt that we actually ARE looking for the oddities, the exceptions.

So I said something about "truth" and "honesty" in answers and about being brief and not using long rambling sentences, all of which are true. But then Monica said simply "you must be provocative." I stopped and realized how true that was, and yet how strange it made me feel to actually hear it said that way. But if we have over two hundred hours of raw footage (which is what we're expecting), consider what happens when you have two scientists discussing a career-changing budget cut. One says, sitting upright and expressionless, "Needless to say, we are very disappointed, but the scientific community must respond to the wishes of the political community, and often this is at odds with our intentions and our hopes as we move forward towards a better understanding of the universe. However, other opportunities for growth still exist at this facility and we will doubtless reallocate our resources to pursue these avenues." The other scientist says, leaning forward and gesturing, "It sucks! I was really mad! I thought, 'what are these idiots in Washington thinking? How could they do this?'"

We had both of those responses. As an editor, as a viewer, as a cameraperson, and as a director, the second response is much more interesting. But is it as accurate? Is it true? Is it honest? Is it entertaining? Is it exploitative? Less sophisticated? More sophisticated? Is it an oddity? Is it bad science?

Luckily, making documentaries is not science. Sometimes oddities tell the same story much better.

Dr. Witherell was a great interview subject because he fell right in the middle. He, like Judy Jackson, is part politician. But he's also an intensely passionate scientist, and this makes him great in front of the camera. We were fearing lots of careful answers, guarded responses, but he was engaging and honest. He immediately plunged into his take on the Bush administration, America's relationship to science, the troubles Fermilab has seen recently, the search for the Higgs (here he gave us both: he said something careful about how the particle physics community will all benefit whomever finds it and how they are cooperating in the search wherever it leads, but then with a slight push admitted "of course I want to find it here!") and a realistic look at its future. He was, in a word, great. The only trouble was Stef was not present and I'm afraid my camera and lighting arrangements were not, in a word, great.

Dr. Witherell's last day in office is June 30. He is due to lay off 100 people before he leaves. Not sure how we're going to address this.

Friday, May 27, 2005


Scientists are very careful people.

It makes sense. They don't want to say anything until they're absolutely sure. They don't want people to think they're trying to make a provocative claim that they can't back up, or to claim a discovery only to see it get disproved because they made a tiny mistake somewhere in the fine details. It's about credibility --- especially when a scientist represents one of the most important facilities in the world, like Fermilab.

But it can be hell for a filmmaker.

More important than just about anything for our story is the process: we want to see the scientists at work. We want to see them scratching their heads, getting excited, getting confused, getting frustrated. We're much less interested in a calm presentation of vetted results. Unfortunately, that's the way most scientists are accustomed to dealing with the outside world. Do everything behind closed doors until you are absolutely certain, then allow the public to see the results. But really, where's the fun in that?

Fortunately, we have a good advocate: John Conway, one of our physicists, is getting the hang of what we're looking for. Mostly, anyway. He invited us to a "blessing," where his research group questioned a data result for the last time, asking final questions, putting away all doubts, before finally giving it the official stamp of approval. (Of course, we were interested in a step or two before that point, where they were wrestling with what the data meant, but perhaps, in time...) Other physicists in the group were reluctant --- they were planning on asking us to leave at a certain point, or requesting that we allow them to see the footage and approve it. Before the meeting, however, John stood firm on our behalf and insisted we be allowed to attend nearly all the meeting (all that we needed, anyway) and not have to submit footage for their approval. Of course, that's something that we wouldn't have done anyway, but he framed it nicely and appropriately as an issue of free speech, and reminded them that we were not antagonistic to their cause; in fact, just the opposite. They agreed and we got some very interesting footage of the meeting.

Not only that, but we keyed into a couple of important story moments: there was a particular result, a single collision, that they were buzzing with some excitement about. We followed John and two of his colleagues back to his office where they seemed to completely forget about our camera and become totally engaged with hashing out this particular subatomic collision. They whipped out a piece of paper and started drawing diagrams, got out laptops and looked at charts and graphs, and seemed to focus on a particular area on plot which could potentially yield information about the location of the Higgs boson (or where it could be ruled OUT --- nearly as important information).

And here's where the strength of our film can be found, in my opinion. It's very clear that hardly anyone in our audience (including ourselves, let's be honest) will understand P-bars, Giga-electron Volts, Muons decaying into Tau particles, W-bosons, and the rest of the terminology flying around the room in their exchange. It's also clear that the charts and graphs will be nearly meaningless. However, this scene, this moment, communicates something we've been looking desperately for since our filming began: scientists searching. Not scientists explaining, or presenting, or describing, which we have plenty of. But scientists actually excited, drawing diagrams and debating, wondering, agreeing and disagreeing. The fact that we don't know or understand what exactly it is they're searching for diminishes in importance. We can all understand what it means to be hot on the trail of something. Or a sudden spike in a long, slow search --- we all can relate to the surge of adreneline. That's the kind of connection we're hoping for between audience and scientist; that's our story.

To underscore, we had another lucky break: because of this significant event (we can't call it a discovery, of course) in the search, John and his colleagues got their picture in the Fermilab newsletter. And guess who was in charge of taking the picture? John's wife and our major character, Robin! We followed the group outside and got footage as Robin lined them up and shot a couple of photos. As soon as the issue comes out, I'll post a picture here.

Originally uploaded by 137 Films.

Here's the link to that page:

  • Fermilab Today Newsletter
  • Tuesday, May 24, 2005

    Bird's eye view - sort of

    Making fiction films is a radically different process than making non-fiction films. In the former, you have nearly complete control over everything: everything that happens from start to finish, everything the characters say, what their expressions look like, what they wear, what the light looks like, whether they're standing in an office or in a field, what sounds you hear, and not only what you see but how you see it. A fiction filmmaker therefore hopes for occasional moments of the UNexpected --- happy accidents, random occurrences, unexpected surprises. They can make the difference between a good scene and a fantastic film moment.

    Non-fiction filmmakers --- documentarians --- experience nearly the complete opposite. You have almost no idea what will happen or when, what a person will say, how they say it, what things look like and how anything appears on camera. It's understandable that the documentarian will long for what the fiction filmmaker has: a little bit of control. Control over ANYthing. Documentarians have a lot of patience, and can be comfortable with a large amount of unknowns and loose ends, but occasionally they just want to make something happen in just the right way. Filmmakers like us who have done some of both are either cursed or blessed (depending on your perspective) with a familiarity with both worlds, and with the insight that both worlds can inform each other.

    All this to say: I thought of a really cool opening shot for the film.

    We had been in contact with the Barnstormers, as you know if you've read other posts. They are the Fermilab radio controlled model airplane club. Monica had recently obtained a tiny remote video camera, and we kicked around the idea of attaching this camera to one of their planes and sending it aloft. I thought the perfect shot would be of the Fermilab hi-rise --- seen from an impossible bird's eye view, probably distorted, definitely strange-looking, possibly tainted by some static here or there. It would be the first image in the film; our introduction to Fermilab, as seen through a disembodied presence half in and half out of this world. Sort of like a subatomic particle. Later, as the film progressed, the viewer would be introduced to the Barnstormers, see the plane, and understand what the image had been.

    So, on Thursday Monica and I met Alan Hahn and a Swedish physicist (unfortunately, I can't remember his name and don't have my notes as I write this, so will refer to him by the cryptic and slightly dramatic title of "the Swedish Physicist") over the lunch hour in a field on Fermilab's grounds near the cemetery. We were scheduled to meet the Barnstormers earlier in May, but were rained out. But Alan told us a couple of them head out there nearly every lunch hour during good weather, and as we pulled up at 12:30 the clouds were just starting to break.

    The first thing we saw was a guy tuning up a dark blue plane that sounded like a swarm of hornets buzzing. He knelt beside it with a helper, revving it up. Finally, he dashed a few feet away and picked up a handle that was laying on the grass. His helper stayed beside the plane, holding it by the tail. The guy with the handle signaled, the helper let go, and the plane took off and started whizzing around in a circle with the guy in the center. I believe they called it "controlled line" flying. Anyway, he spun and spun in the circle, making the plane do loops and tricks. The helper trotted over to us, and it was Alan Hahn.

    He and the Swedish Physicist were very excited to check out our remote video camera. They were confident they could get it onto the plane and into the air. We walked with them to a picnic table and I got footage of them as they pored over a yellow and white airplane on the ground, taping and strapping our camera to the plane with rubber bands, tape, and tiny bungee cords. Finally, they were ready. We stood back. Monica watched the video feed from the plane on the monitor and I filmed the flight. The Swedish Physicist twisted knobs and levers on his hand-held control. The little plane had a wingspan of about three feet, and it "taxied" down the close-mowed stretch of ground, did a nice 180 degree turn, and revved up its engine. It shot across the ground and was suddenly airborne. "We've got a picture!" Monica said.

    By this time the sun was blazing, which made the colors bright as I had hoped. In short, it was perfect weather. However, as anyone who has spent much time behind the eyepiece of a video camera knows, it becomes extremely difficult to see what's going on in your camera in bright sunlight. The flip open screen becomes useless, so you must close it and mash the eyepiece cup to your eye, trying to block out all the other light as you struggle to see what's happening. Forget about trying to focus --- you must rely on the auto focus (although in light this bright most everything will be in focus anyway, since the iris is barely open). Then, your eye adjusts to that small, dark eyepiece, so that when you pull your head away you're blinded by the daylight.

    I was too busy trying to negotiate the eyepiece to look at the video feed coming to our monitor from the tiny radio camera on the plane, but later I saw that the image was slightly fuzzy, shot through occasionally with static, and featured a blur in the center which was the rapidly spinning propeller. In short, just what I had expected. Alan directed the Swedish Physicist to turn the plane so that we could see the Fermilab hi-rise in the distance, which was the shot I had been looking for. Sure enough, there it was --- but for just a second or two, and tiny in the distance. I had visualized a long, slow, deliberate shot, but as Monica has pointed out several times there can be a huge gap between what you visualize and what you actually get on camera. Even between what you remember getting on camera and what's actually there. For example, both Monica and I visualized Leon Lederman's hands as he drew diagrams in the air during our interview, but for technical reasons the shot was much tighter and showed none of his hands waving. But that's part of the fun --- things also get captured that you don't remember, don't know at the time, and don't expect. That's why the editing room is such an enormously important place. We're grocery shopping now --- the editing process is where the cooking actually begins. Our job is to get all the ingredients we could possibly dream of needing, so that when the chef asks for paprika, we not only have it but can ask "Dried? Powdered? Chilean? Andean? Peruvian? Sweet? Red? White? or Hungarian?"

    Near the end of the flight, the tiny engine suddenly cut out. "Stick only!" Alan called out. The Swedish Physicist did not panic. He brought the plane down, slowly, carefully, and it bounced once or twice and rolled to a perfect stop. The camera was unharmed, and they had to get back to work so we packed it all up as they sprayed down the plane with windex. We made plans to meet them again during their next actual Barnstormers club meeting, viewing this as more of a test flight. We all agreed that the camera ought to be strapped onto the wing rather than the fuselage, so we could get unobstructed views.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2005


    Ben Kilminster, the young hipster physicist in the Fermilab rock band, agreed to let us shoot him as he rollerbladed around the ring. This was not on the inside of the ring, of course, because that's a cramped hallway (currently filled with lethal radiation since the accelerator is in operation) but rather above, on the one-lane service road that runs above the accelerator tunnel. We engaged some high-tech filmmaking wizardry: to get the shot, I brought along my bike and we gaff-taped a tripod to my bike cross bar so that it floated above my back tire. For good measure, we used nearly a quarter roll of gaff-tape, and the result was an ugly black misshapen ball with a lens poking out. But it was solid, by god.

    I hopped on the bike and started pedaling, and overtook Ben. I wanted to get the shot of the movement around the ring first, and then Ben drifting into the frame. We set the iris a little too wide and I'm afraid the first pass was a bit washed out. The sky lost it's color and became white. On the second pass, coming back, I just turned the auto-iris back on and it looks better.

    While he was rollerblading, puffing for breath, I asked him a couple of questions. He said once when he was stuck and needed to come up with a new way of looking at things, he came out and rollerbladed backwards. Another nice comment came when he said he needed to get out of the lab and look at some big things for a change, things that were far away. It's true, I would imagine: looking at things at the sub-atomic level might make you want to get next to a giant pine tree (or a 1000-pound buffalo). And, of course, the idea that this guy watches protons and anti-protons as they race around the ring then takes a break and gets inspiration by ... racing around the ring ... is a nice one.

    Along those lines, I took Stef up to the 15th floor of the hi-rise and got a shot of Ben skating from 150 feet up. We used cell phones to communicate --- I told him "go!" and he started skating. Stef was in a tight shot and did a beautiful zoom-out/tilt to follow him and reveal the huge size of the 4-mile circumference ring. Later Ben joked that we should speed up the image to make it look like he was travelling at the speed of light. "I'll hold a torch," he said. "I'll be the proton." Luke said I could be the anti-proton on my bike, holding a torch coming the other way. The problem is, of course, that we'd have to crash, and our production insurance wouldn't cover that.

    Monday, April 18, 2005

    Data Taking

    Monica went to San Francisco for her mother's 90th birthday party, so she couldn't come with Stef, Luke and me as we interviewed Gregorio Bernardi at Fermilab. Despite his Italian name, he's French, and seemed much more able and willing to call a spade a spade when it comes to what our country is doing wrong on the science front. We were there primarily to get footage of him as he heads a data-taking session at the D-zero detector, so I asked just a few questions about the budget cuts and America's relationship to science. He said, in a sense, that America had better get it's act together or it would be in serious trouble. Something only John Conway and Rocky Kolb have been willing to say on camera so far. It's strange to contrast that with comments from Chris Quigg who said "it's a wonderful time to be a scientist in America" or Judy Jackson's optimism. Dr. Bernardi poked some fun at Bush's idea to send people to Mars, which he said would really add very little to America's scientific advancement.

    Once we went inside, we descended four stories to D-zero's control room. He did a shift change procedure (it reminded me a little of a new captain taking control of one shift of a battleship's operations). He explained some things to us and we got footage of him going about his business. At one point they had to stop the detector and start it again, which is a standard procedure which happens every four hours, and involves the main engineer ringing a little bell and announcing "Detector Stop!" About 60 seconds later, he rings the bell and says "Detector Start!" It was a little humorous: here they are, surrounded by unfathomable technology, and they've got a little "ring bell for service" type dinger on the desk that he taps lightly with his hand. Of course, I had Stef get a close up of the bell ringing. I loved the irony there. Plus the engineer seemed to get a kick out of that tiny act of low-tech physicality.

    Dr. Bernardi gave us one of the best moments yet on tape, in my opinion, in terms of the science leg of our story: the actual search for the Higgs boson. It came when we were asking him about the different screens, monitors, and displays flashing all around the room. I pointed to a big one with what looked like a 3D-bar graph on a giant 30-inch TV monitor. About once per second, the graph changed. Sometimes there were a couple of different tall lines, and sometimes there were dozens of multi-colored bars, short and tall. It was hypnotizing. Dr. Bernardi's eyes lit up.

    "Oh, that one," he said, "that's what the detector is seeing. Each spike is a collision." He pointed at the screen. "When there are two or three large spikes like this, that's good. That's two or three discrete events. That's good data." Then the graph changed to a multi-colored mess, with lots of different bars of all sizes. It looked complicated and fascinating.

    "That's junk," he said. "Useless."

    I asked him if he ever found himself just staring at that monitor, looking at the spikes, the collisions. "Yes," he said, smiling, "I've stared at this quite a bit. Maybe one of those spikes is the Higgs boson, you know?"

    I had Stef shoot that screen in a few different ways, including a really tight close up, with the bars changing, for about a minute. The idea of the Higgs boson being one of those spikes really caught my attention, and I think it's one of the few visual, comprehensible (and even poetic) ways the audience can relate to this notion of a search. I found myself staring at that screen a long time.