Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Round Table

I heard back from our contact in the Accelerator Division and he's agreeable to setting up the "round table" discussion in the first of the new year.

In the meantime, I drew up the first "paper edit" of our film so far. It's a little exciting to see the first look at how it might come together, although there are some holes that are evident. And, of course, we'd love to have some kind of resounding finish. Not sure we have a conclusive "ending" yet.

Monica and I are about half-way through with digitizing the 100+ tapes we have shot so far. Other than some timecode errors resulting from a camera we used near the beginning of the shoot, everything has gone pretty smoothly.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Quenchers, Part III

The story, continued.

When we got there, we spoke with the head of the Acclerator mechanics. Right away we could tell this was a bigger deal than I had previously thought when I said it was kind of a routine thing. I asked if it was a four-alarm fire. He said "Nope. I'd call it a 10-alarm fire." He said it was maybe the worst quench he'd ever seen in twenty something years at Fermilab.

Naturally, we were really excited to get in the tunnel and get some footage of it all. There was a little shuffling and some back and forth along the lines of "I'll have to check." (to Dr. Johnson) "It is OK?" "Is it OK with you?" "Yeah. Is it OK with you?" "If it's OK with you, it's OK with me." "I'll have to check with my guys." (to guys) "Is it OK with you?" "Is OK with Dr. Johnson?" "If it's OK with you, it's OK with him." "Well, if it's OK with you, it's OK with us." (to us) "Well, I guess it's OK."

We breathed a sigh of relief. The three of us went through a 15-minute radiation training session and Andrew and I went down to the tunnel --- each with two doseometers (to check radiation levels), an emergency oxygen supply, and an escort (Monica decided to stay above ground). We were allowed 15 minutes in the tunnel.

We got 15 minutes of footage of a repair crew, some helpful explanations, and a slightly different sense from one of the mechanics there.

"It happens," he said, shrugging. I asked him if he would consider this a 10-alarm fire. "Nah," he said. "Pretty routine."

As we left I noticed they had a radio down there, underground. A wire was wrapped around the antenna and snaked its way to a copper pipe on the wall and wrapped around it (you can see this pipe in Quenchers II --- one of two parallel pipes above the guy's head). I asked if they could get reception.

"This is a water line, a copper pipe that goes all the way around the ring. We're Bears fans. With a four-mile circular piece of 2-inch copper, I'd say right now we've got about the best AM radio antenna in the world."


While Andrew and I were down in the tunnel, Monica was having a great conversation with one of our hosts. Without the camera. Because, like some of the people we run into, he flat-out refused to get on camera. He expressed fear and doubt about the future of Fermilab, frustration with the government and with American culture. In short, he verbalized every theme we want to pursue, with a more direct pathos than we've heard so far. There was a distinct difference in his point of view: he was an engineer, not a physicist, and had a completely different relationship with the machine, the Tevatron, than that of the physicists. I hate to keep making Star Trek analogies, but these guys are truly the Red Shirts in Engineering. They know every screw, nut, and bolt, and jump in to fix anything that ever goes wrong. Their story is quite different from those of the physicists, who see the Tevatron as a means to an end (i.e. getting high-energy science out of it). They'll go where ever new science is happening. But the engineers and mechanics --- they only know the Tevatron. They're not likely to jump over to Geneva in 2007. What are they feeling?

The problem is, they, more than anyone, are resistant to getting in front of the camera. And if they do, they stiffen like witnesses on the stand (one guy answered all Monica's questions using "ma'am" : "Ma'am, I'm not qualified to answer that question. Yes, ma'am. I'll have to check on that, ma'am.")

Monica was exasperated with the poignancy of the conversation she had had --- off camera. So what to do? In the car on the way home, she suggested we sit down with a couple of the engineers and mechanics, maybe even three or four, in a very informal "roundtable" type of discussion. Try to make it feel more like a conversation, rather than an "Interview." I thought it sounded like a great idea. I wrote back, suggesting such an arrangement. Haven't heard a word.

I tend to believe this quench is more than just "nah. Routine." The tevatron will be offline for over two weeks. Even though it doesn't really alter the search for the Higgs or ultimately affect the machine, it demonstrates how delicate this huge device can be --- and how many people depend on it.

Quenchers, Part II

Monica, Andrew and I went down to Fermilab on Thursday of last week. Remember when I said I didn't think this was such a big deal? Well, it was a bigger deal than I thought.

Our friend Bob Mau, whom we crossed with our tardiness a year ago, was on vacation. Dan Johnson was filling in, and he was extremely helpful. He set up some interviews for us (!) and generally helped facilitate everything. I now know a little more about what a quench is.

Here's an overhead of the Tevatron:


As I've written before, this thing is 4 miles in circumference, and it's all underground (the circular "river" than runs above it is to help cool it off).

Here's what it looks like underground, inside the tunnel:


And this:

view of Tevatron in A sector of main ring tunnel

See that red part they're looking at, followed by the yellow part? That's the actual pipe (OK, so it's square) that the protons and anti-protons are running through. You can see that the tunnel is curving way back in the distance --- if you wanted to, you could put on your track suit and start jogging --- four miles later you'd be back in this same spot.

How do you get protons and anti-protons to go in a circle? You use magnets --- lots of very large, very powerful magnets --- spaced every few feet or so. These magnets give the protons and anti-protons a little nudge, guiding them in a circle. Imagine you're at a circular race track, and you've rigged the outer guard rail with a magnet every 6 inches, all the way around the track. You load up your rifle with a steel bullet, aim it along the guard rail and pull the trigger. If you've done your math correctly, each magnet will nudge the bullet as it passes, making it curve a little more, until it goes all the way around the circle. You'd have to jump out of the way or the bullet would hit you in the back. These magnets are the key to understanding what a quench is.

These magnets use electricity, and electricity tends to make things hot. In order to work properly, the magnets have to be really, really REALLY cold. This means the electricity works without resistance. Think of it like this: let's say you were riding in a car on a highway. Maybe you're not too bright, and you decide to open your car door and stick your hand down on the road. All that friction is going to burn up your hand in a hurry. That's what happens when electricity runs through things --- it meets resistance, and it heats up (that's why a light bulb gets so hot). Now, imagine that you are on a perfectly slick, icy road (ignore for the moment that your car would probably end up in a ditch). When you stick your hand down, it slides along without the slightest trouble. Your hand doesn't heat up at all. That's the basic premise --- that's how they keep the magnets working.

How do they keep the magnets so cool? Liquid helium, my friend, liquid helium.

Detector machinery

But liquid helium is tricky stuff. What happened last Monday is that a bit of liquid helium insulation failed and let some of the liquid helium heat up. When it gets a little warmer, it changes from liquid to gas (just like water does). The only problem is, a gas is a lot more volatile than a liquid. When it started turning into a gas, it expanded by a factor of about 700. Have you ever put a frozen dinner in the microwave and forgotten to poke a hole in the plastic wrap? It expands and pops because the water turns to steam. If it has no where to go, it busts through whatever is holding it. Ditto for liquid helium, but more so. Suddenly finding itself 700 times bigger, the helium busted through the pipes like the Incredible Hulk bursting out of his shirt. This caused that particular magnet to suddenly overheat and stop working, and the protons and anti-protons didn't get the nudge they needed and sprayed into the wall instead of going around the circle.

Alarms went off, people choked on their coffee, warning lights started blinking across the board, and the whole thing shut down. And I mean THE WHOLE THING shut down. Both detectors, everyone taking data, several hundred people did a collective "huh?" and all operations ground to a halt. No one was in the tunnel, of course, since there is too much radiation during operation, but I asked one of the engineers what someone would have seen if they had been standing right there.

"There would have been a loud bang," he said, "and insulation being blown apart like confetti." Later, once we had gotten inside the tunnel, one of the mechanics showed us the insulation --- it looked like that kind of high-tech tin foil you see on NASA satellites. He said that stuff was all over the floor.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

So, how do you do that?

Maritza asked about the editing process. Here's a primer for the way we'll do it:

1) digitize the footage.
We've already started this process. Monica and I are starting in on the more than 100 tapes we've recorded so far. We aren't looking at content at the moment --- we're just capturing every second of footage we've taken and getting it into the computer to start examining later (in the world of writing, it's kind of like taking your reams of handwritten notes and scanning them in to the computer so that you can start editing your essay for content). We do it in 3 20-minute chunks per tape, and we're doing it at a low, rough resolution (we have to do it at a low resolution because it would take many hard drives full to capture all our footage at high resolution. Using low resolution we can have access to all our footage. When we're done, we can finish up with a high resolution version. It looks a little fuzzy, but you get used to it). For ease, in addition to our complete tape naming scheme ("Interview with Leon Lederman, 11/05/2005", for example) we've just given each tape a number. So when we digitize to the computer we use the numbers, so it will be easy to keep track of each tape and grab it when the computer calls for it later.

2) Log the footage
This is where it gets a little agonizing. In the first stage, you simply capture in giant chunks. In this stage, you actually make smaller clips (called subclips) based on what's happening. For example, if Ben is roller blading around the ring, you might take a great 30-second clip out of the big 20-minute chunk and call it "Ben rollerblades." You'd also enter lots of other information, such as location, the time, who's on camera, etc. so that you can sort it all later (call up all the shots of the ring, for example, or all the shots with Ben). After this stage we will have many, many hundreds of small clips, each named something descriptive. These are the basic puzzle pieces we will be shuffling around to make the film.

During this phase also we will be getting a real idea of what we've got and what we don't have. Rough themes will begin to emerge, and we'll fall in love with some clips, be disappointed by others, sick that we missed some things, excited by something we didn't expect, discouraged and energized in equal measure.

3) Transcribe the footage
Truly agonizing. We will literally type (or, hopefully, enlist someone to help) all the interviews. As torturous as this is, it is critical, because you can't imagine how many times you'd find yourself asking "didn't Leon Lederman say something like that? Or was it John Conway? Weren't they talking about this sometime in the winter? Which tape was that on? Or was that someone else? Or did I totally imagine that?" All these questions can be answered when it is in cold black and white, in an indexible word file.

4) Create a paper edit
Now the strategizing and creative work begins. Since we now know what we've got, and what everyone says and does, it's possible to create a rough diagram and flow chart of the movie simply on paper. I've used big pieces of paper before, making a long timeline; I've used notecards; I've done it on a computer. For me, I really love the feel of a pencil and paper, so in conjunction with Monica and with feedback from Luke and Andrew, the first stab will probably be done that way. 2nd draft, 3rd draft, changes, adjustments.

5) Obtain secondary footage
We'll be using some news footage from local and national goings-on, so we have to pursue the legal and logistical battles associated with aquiring footage of, say, the Dover Pennsylvania school district announcing they are requiring teachers to discuss intelligent design in the classroom.

6) Begin the edit
The paper edit is a nice starting point, and essential to get an idea of the flow of the story, but everything changes when you start seeing clips in place on a timeline. Things are too slow, things rush by too fast, themes are not developed like you thought, certain footage is not compelling like you had hoped, and suddenly new things emerge as threads to pursue that you hadn't imagined would be interesting. People get chopped out of the edit, new people find their way in, whole themes get tweaked and massaged or cut altogether.

One thing that will make this film manageable (and more fun, in my opinion) in the editing room is that we are planning to treat the year we spend with the Tevatron as just that --- a year. So in a sense, that gives us a basic structure from the start. We'll be thinking of our story in terms of several units (months) strung together. In that way, we can focusing on creating a beautiful, totally engrossing "January," or "August." Sometimes it's easier to think about a larger work in terms of several successful subdivisions --- like focusing on writing a great chapter instead of always trying to write the novel.

7) Deadline 1: the Rough Cut
You have to have a deadline. This is when you have a working, albeit still flawed, version of the film for trusted viewers to watch and give you feedback. Watching a movie you've made with even one other unconnected person is a radically different experience than watching it alone in front of your computer. This is when people blink and say "I don't get this at all" or "hmmm. That's pretty good. But that middle section is way, way too long. I don't care about that guy or what he's doing."

8) Deadline 2: Rough Cut #2
Taking the feedback from your viewers and from your gut, you make adjustments, re-edit. This process could have a #3 if you feel there are major changes to be made.

9) Deadline 3: Fine Cut
This is where you've got it about as good as you can get it --- the music is in place, the themes are where they will stay, and the time for major changes is over. You show it to trusted viewers again for feedback on timing ("that shot is just a little too long") and emotional impact ("that section works really well, but would work better if...") and overall effectiveness ("a little more impact on your last point").

10) Deadline 4: Final Cut
Self-explanatory. Big party.

If you're lucky and work really really hard, this process can take 6-9 months. Usually much shorter with a fiction film, since you basically know how it's going to get put together before you even pick up the camera.

One final note --- Only in the last 10 years is this even possible. Back in the old days, of course, everyone had to shoot on film. That would increase the budget by a factor of 50. We could never tackle a project like this without digital video --- we can do everything ourselves for free! Vive le Mac...