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.


tickmeister said...

OK, this ain't gonna' make me very popular with the cast of the current saga. If in fact CERN will be such an upgrade that it will allow the Higgs particle to be found before lunch, why not shut down Fermilab and just wait for the big rig. Why spend any money at all trying to do the job with current equipment when something a lot better is almost here? I do think that theoretical physics should get it's share of funding, it's the key to how to do the really big stuff like blowing up the earth or maybe blowing up an asteroid that might mash the earth.

(Sidebar: I theorize that the hated nuclear bomb in the hands of the hated US Military has prevented at least 3 world wars that would have killed almost all of us before now. For details, buy me a pint of Wild Turkey 101 and ask.)

Also, nuclear reactors which if we ever get over our superstitious fear of the things will allow us to eliminate most greenhouse gas generation, assuming that we still think that is a good idea in 4 or 5 years.

Alright, so I am rambling. Still the basic question, isn't the entire effort at Fermi essential a waste with CERN coming on line?

Clayton said...

This is a great question, and one that we are asking the people in our film constantly. In fact, it's a question we have to ask ourselves constantly too --- we don't want to engage in blind American boosterism. As you've said in the past (and others) physics is more and more an international field --- let others foot the bill for a change, especially since we can all share in the results.

Actually, a lot of people agree with you --- that's pretty much what's happening. Fermilab is being shut down and most of the physicists are heading overseas. So the question is a moot one --- the plug on Fermilab has been pulled (happened in February). Now, I think it might be interesting to turn the question upside down: does it matter if Fermilab, the only particle accelerator and the most advanced lab in the country, shuts down and CERN is the only game in town?

It's a question worth asking for a couple of reasons. For one, we built our science and technology on the backs of immigrants (NASA was made possible through the Germans we lured after WWII, Los Alamos and the nuclear program would have been impossible without immigrant scientists). Universities have always been linked to labs like Fermilab (University of Chicago, University of San Diego, Rutgers), the Stanford Linear Collider, etc). With Fermilab shutting down, I've mentioned before that most of the physicists at Fermilab are almost already packing their bags, and all of the young post-docs and new Ph.Ds are just killing time in the US, waiting for CERN to open. Physicists from Italy, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Sweden, and the UK will have one big fat reason less to come to this country. And the Universities associated with Fermilab will no longer have a premier facility to lure faculty and ph.d candidates with. Add to that the fact that the massive international collaborations won't be happening here anymore and we'll have less contact with scientific communities from other countries.

All this brain drain has a trickle-down effect.

Also, I think it's kind of like competition in the marketplace --- if all you have is AT&T for your phone service, the rates get higher, the quality gets lower, the management gets fat and lazy, customer service goes to crap. Even though CERN and Fermilab share results, ask any of them and they talk about the competition. Leon Lederman, the nobel laureate, called CERN the lab he loves to hate and talked about how important the "collaborative competition" was.

So, that's my bias. The politicians that we've talked to have gone on and on about national pride and America's need to remain a leader (even though they keep cutting the budget). I'm not interested in those arguments, but I think it doesn't bode well for America to outsource the search for knowledge. If France is making great art, shouldn't we just quit and let them do it? You'd end up with a generation who doesn't care much about making art or understanding it.

But I'm glad you're asking --- because this is one of the big questions we want the viewer to walk away with --- "does it matter?" Even though I've got some pesonal ideas about it, we're definitely not going to try to answer it one way or the other in the film. In my opinion that's what a good documentary does --- raises questions without trying to answer them all.

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