"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.