Thursday, August 25, 2005

Cool it!

The last time I interviewed Ben Kilminster, the young physicist who's in the rock band, he was wearing a "Bad Mo Fo" T-shirt and talking big about Fermilab's chances to find the Higgs boson.

Originally uploaded by 137 Films.

Possibly he was swaggering a little, since he was about an hour from the big rock show at the Fermilab User's Center where he would be the lead singer, compelling a dance floor full of young, blonde physicists from South America to start shakin' it up. It was great for the camera. He said something like "if we find it, we'll be right on the edge. We might be able to grab the steak just as the Europeans are about to throw it on the grill." A great metaphor.

So, other than impending stardom, what had gotten Ben so fiesty? Why was he suddenly a little more confident in the aging Tevatron's ability to find the Higgs?

He mentioned that electron cooling, something experimental and in the works on the other side of the Fermilab grounds for about 10 years now, had kicked in and was having an effect. If all went well, this would double Fermilab's luminosity (remember, that's essentially the number of collisions they can create --- how many atoms they smash together. The more atoms that get smashed, the more chances they have to find something). Let me say that again: it would DOUBLE the chances to find something. That's pretty big.

How would it do this?

A month or two ago, we were hanging out with John Conway in the detector control room. There was a little black and white monitor that he said they keep checking all day. Essentially, there were two numbers they checked on. One number was the amount of protons, and the other number was the amount of anti-protons.

Why are these numbers so important? Because protons and anti-protons are the things that the Tevatron smashes together. These are the "atoms" in "Atom-Smasher". There's only one problem: the Tevatron can make all the protons it could ever need. They're cheap and easy (as Leon Lederman said, you just go down to Ace Hardware and buy a bottle of Hydrogen, send it through a spark, and you've got protons galore). Remember the cockroft_walton? That great-looking machine that looks like it came from the pages of a Flash Gordon comic book? That's where they make the protons.

But --- making anti-protons is very tough, and it's even tougher to keep them around. Imagine that you're got a reality TV show that features red and blue cars smashing together in the desert. You've got plenty of red cars, but for some reason the blue cars are extremely difficult to make. So you've got lots of red car drivers sitting around, just waiting for a blue car to show up so they can smash into it. Not very efficient. You're starting to lose a lot of viewers to "Survivor."

Electron cooling is like an invention that allows twice as many blue cars to roll out of the factory. Suddenly you can smash twice as many cars in the desert! Ratings soar! Electron cooling can double the amount of anti-protons, thereby doubling the amount of atom smashes that take place in the tevatron. That's good news --- with twice as many collisions come twice as much data, and twice the chances to make a discovery. That's why Ben was exhibiting a little bravado that day before his big rock show.

So Monica and I went down to talk to the guy who had been in charge of this process for ten years --- Sergei Naigetsev. He took us over to the place where the electron cooling happened --- it's a small building with a big tall cylinder inside. The short version of how it works is that they cool the rowdy anti-protons with a calming, sensible beam of electrons. Once they are cooled off a little, they are easier to manage and last longer, and can get packed into the tevatron tighter. We got some nice shots, and he told the story about how he was on a camping trip when the process was officially proven. He was scrambling around on a sand dune with his cell phone, trying to get a signal, heart pounding with the news. That's a nice image.

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.