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.