Friday, November 25, 2005


Here is a really good collection of essays that Fermilab itself has created to explain the concept of luminosity, which I attempted to do here. I recommend you read these, if you're curious to find out more about exactly what Fermilab does via the Tevatron, and, as they say, "why we've recently gotten better at producing it." This is, I think, part of the reason Ben is getting more excited and optimistic.

But, on the other hand, great things can hit snags, and recently (Monday) the Tevatron hit a big one. They had what's called a "quench," which we heard about briefly when we visited the Main Control room. From what I understand, a quench is something that happens when one of the superconducting magnets overheats and shuts down, stopping the entire cycle of protons and anti-protons as they race around the ring. The movement of those protons and anti-protons is guided by the magnets, like train tracks might guide a train in a circle. More accurately, it would be like one of those magnetic trains that doesn't actually come into contact with the rails.

What does this mean? Since we've begun filming, this is the first time the Tevatron has quenched. According to Fermilab Today, the Tevatron will be down for 10 days. A significant event, but not really one that impacts our story much --- in a way, it's sort of like a car getting a flat tire. It's unfortunate, it's annoying, and it's very inconvenient, but you fix it and get on the road again. If I'm right, Bob Mau and his crew in the Control Room are scrambling to get the Tevatron back online, but if we ask very many questions, they would probably shrug and say "it happens. You fix it and move on."

So this places us in a slightly unsure position. We'd like to get coverage of this event, but at the same time it doesn't necessarily add much to our story. To pursue it as a moment of crisis I think would be disingenuous, and if we swoop in with cameras blazing it might cause us to appear as the documentarian equivalent of ambulance chasers. On the other hand, it IS a moment of drama in our tale of the Tevatron --- but somehow I'm not getting personally very excited about it. It is an unusual but fairly routine occurance.

I think a hotter thread on the story is this recent surge in the Tevatron's ability to produce luminosity. This is more relevent to our story, it feeds the science arm of our film, and it makes the notion that the Tevatron will soon shut down slightly more bittersweet. Remember when the Hubble space telescope was slated for destruction? Imagine if in the last year or two it suddenly increased it's ability to see more clearly into deep space. It would make the notion of letting it burn up in the atmosphere seem more senseless. That's the way we feel about the Tevatron, despite the fact that CERN will be able to do ten times as much science: why shut it down when it is suddenly getting better and stronger? (FYI, the decision to shut down the Hubble is very similar to the decision to shut down the Tevatron: budget cuts by the President. Monica has suggested making this link more direct in our film; something we are considering.)

In fact, that's the same reasoning behind Fermilab's recent decision to extend the current run of the Tevatron. Normally, the accelerator gets shut down every November so they can get inside, do repairs, upgrade things, and generally brush out the cobwebs. They keep it offline for about 6 weeks, then fire it back up again. We were present when they achieved the startup (although I looked back and saw that I didn't write an entry about that... might have to write one after the fact) and run it for 10 months. Our film was designed to run for a complete start-up to shut-down cycle -- a year in the life, if you will. But not long ago they determined that the Tevatron was running so well and luminosity was so high that they'd be crazy to shut it down. They moved the maintenance shut down date to March 1 --- we plan to keep shooting until then, although it doesn't tie the bow so neatly to shoot for 15 months instead of one year. On the other hand, this builds a little momentum, especially where Ben is concerned...

As a final thought, I apologize for the dearth of posts in the late summer. But hopefully you readers are following along again --- so write in with some comments! I love to read your thoughts. And share this blog with anyone you think might find it interesting --- feel free to post links to it wherever and whenever. As always, thanks for reading...

Monday, November 21, 2005


In a project this long, the filmmaker has to do a lot of emails that essentially say, "Hello! Remember us? What are you doing?" I've been sending some of these emails out recently to our main characters. After nearly 12 months, we have to have a strong constitution when it becomes clear that we're not nearly as high on their priority list as they are on ours. In fact, it's safe to say we're no longer on anyone's priority list, and we have to find the balance between being annoying and persistent.

Luckily, over the last few months we've developed a good relationship with a few people who respond with enthusiasm. One is Ben, the experimental physicist and lead singer of the Fermilab band. He, more than anyone, seems to still have the fire burning in his belly to find the Higgs. He wrote back to say that recent developments have made him more confident than ever that they will find the Higgs --- not now, he cautioned, but within 2 or 3 years. He is preparing a report on his Higgs analysis that will be presented in January. My goal is to meet with him now to discuss his new-found optimism and then to be there in January when his analysis is presented and "blessed."

The fact that film will be finished before the "two or three years" has expired when Ben thinks they might find the Higgs doesn't pose a problem for me. While obviously it would be nice for a major discovery to be made during our filming, leaving the film with that question unanswered works ---- especially in light of America's current relationship with science. I'm convinced it will engage the viewer more, and perhaps pique enough curiosity that the average person, the person who before the film said "I don't really understand anything about science" might come away from the film and in a month or two think "hmmm... I wonder if they found the Higgs boson yet?" That to me would be an unqualified success.

I don't know ... maybe that makes me optimistic too.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Taking stock

Monica and I met at Le Peep yesterday, as we often do to discuss the project. It has been a slow second-half of the summer for the Atom Smashers --- and, I must confess, Monica, Andrew, Stef and I have been flung in different directions as of late. Monica has written and produced a play in Arizona (after all, she is a playwright before being a filmmaker), Stef has been in China documenting ancient burial caves, Andrew has been juggling 137 Films and several other free-lance projects, and I have been teaching at Northwestern and tweaking a short film that will be produced next May with the incredible assistance of IFP Chicago who awarded me a big fat Production Fund Grant. Both Andrew and Stef will be working with me on that project.

But back to The Atom Smashers: we now have approximately 125 hours of footage, and this will total out at around 160. Things have been quiet on the Fermilab front of late, but we will now enter into our final phase, where we schedule a final round of interviews with our main characters and prepare for the last technical moment of the film: capturing the "shutdown" of the Tevatron for scheduled maintenance. This was originally scheduled for November, but they have decided to extend the run through January since it has been performing so well. We need to make the arrangements to be in three locations at once: in the Main Control Room, in CDF, and in D0.

As well, we will soon begin the editing process, which in truth should have started by now. On Thursday Monica will begin digitizing the footage to hard drive. Once all 160 hours have been captured to hard drive, we will begin logging and transcribing. Anyone have a few hundred hours to kill?

As all this footage is being logged, we'll have an idea where we are and what we have and don't have. Sometime in January or February we'll consider any additional footage we need. One of Monica's short films is playing in Washington DC in February, so we might take another trip there to interview Natalie Angier, the New York Times journalist we weren't able to connect with on our first trip. My guess is that we'll try to hook up with Hastert and some others whom we missed as well.

In the meantime, we'll be fundraising like crazy since we've got a couple of thousand dollars of expenses to pay off by March. Ulp.