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.

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