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
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