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...


Maritza said...

Hi, Clayton--

It's been a while since I checked in on the progress of The Atom Smashers. I'm actually quite interested in the similarities and differences between editing a piece of writing and editing the scads of hours of footage you all are dealing with.

It seems hard enough to me to take 9000 words and get them down to 1000--a task I have done. But reading the words has to be a faster and more finite process than going through all that footage. I can't imaging getting what you've got down to a one or two hour documentary. Inquiring minds want to know how it's done.

By the way, I'm having a holiday party to show off what the interior design student did to my house. I think you are the only regular reader/poster I don't know personally, but I'm convinced you're not an axe murderer. If you'd like to see the place, email me at and I will send you an invitation.


Clayton said...

Editing a piece of writing is probably more similar to editing a fiction film --- something that you've written and that you can determine. With non-fiction it's very different --- almost as if you've commissioned a bunch of strangers to write stream-of-conscious stories or essays more or less on a theme you've announced and each one is dozens of pages long. Now you've got to turn that stack of hundreds of pages into a haiku.

OK, not quite that bad, but close.

We just passed our 100 tape mark, which means we've probably got about 80 hours of actual footage. By the time we're done it will be over a hundred. That means that we'll use less than a minute from each tape when all is said and done --- the ratio would be more like taking 100,000 words and getting it down to 1000.

So, how is it done?

Sigh --- it can be beautiful and agonizing.

I think I'll go ahead and make a post out of this answer.

Thanks for writing and I'd love to come to the party.