Monday, November 20, 2006

A very small false alarm, with a fruity finish, and notes of lavender and lilac

Monica, my co-director, has made use of one of the internet's strengths. She has set up what I think of as an editorial assistant robot. This robot scours the internet to find articles and happenings of interest to her and to us: anything to do with the Higgs boson, Fermilab, the Tevatron, CERN, and other things. She's finely tuned this robot to send stuff our way that seems relevant to our story. She periodically sends highlights of the robot's findings to me.

Yesterday she sent along something that made me sit up in my chair and blink, cup of coffee in my hand. The article, from The New Scientist, was entitled "Fleeting Particle has Shades of Higgs." If that wasn't enough, the subhead really got my attention:

"The world's most wanted particle, the Higgs, may have already appeared under our very noses without anyone noticing."

Ulp. Huh?

What's more, the article was saying that someone named German Valencia, working at Iowa State University, was re-analyzing data already taken from Fermilab (!) from 1997-1999.

I'll just paste in the article here:

The world's most wanted particle, the Higgs, may have already appeared under our very noses without anyone noticing.

The hypothetical Higgs boson, which is thought to give all other particles their mass, was first proposed in the 1960s as part of the standard model of particle physics. Other models known as "supersymmetric" theories, which posit a heavy counterpart for every particle in the standard model, predict the existence of many different Higgs bosons, each with a different mass. It is the lightest one of these that may have already been produced, according to physicist German Valencia at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

Valencia and colleagues re-analysed data collected between 1997 and 1999 by the HyperCP experiment at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. HyperCP was designed to monitor the decay of exotic particles in order to understand why the universe is filled with matter rather than antimatter. Valencia's team focused on the decay of a particle known as sigma into a proton, a muon and an antimuon . According to the standard model, the muon-antimuon pair should have energies that lie between 210 and 240 megaelectronvolts (MeV). But in the three events seen by the HyperCP experiment, they always had the same energy of 214 MeV.

Calculations using the standard model show that the probability of three decay events all generating a muon- antimuon pair with the same energy is about 0.008. "That's pretty low," says Valencia.

A more likely possibility, he says, is that the sigma decayed to a proton and another intermediate particle with a mass of 214 MeV. This intermediate particle then decayed into the muon-antimuon pair, fixing the pair's energy at that value. So what was that mystery particle? The Iowa team's calculations suggest it could be the lightest Higgs boson predicted by one theory of supersymmetry ( ).

"We were obviously very excited that the conditions matched the lightest Higgs," says Valencia. "But it's easy to say 'this could be the Higgs'. The tough part is explaining why this Higgs hasn't popped up in other particle physics accelerators."

To address this, the team calculated the probability of the light Higgs being produced from the decay of particles such as kaons and B-mesons, which have been widely studied at accelerator experiments, including those at CERN in Switzerland and SLAC in California. They found that the nature of the interaction of the Higgs with those particles made the production of the light Higgs highly unlikely.

Dan Kaplan, a member of the HyperCP collaboration at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, which was not intended to help search for the Higgs, is intrigued. However, he says that more work is needed to confirm the claim. Unfortunately, the HyperCP experiment cannot be repeated, because the proton beam used in the experiment has been shut down. "Three events aren't enough to get them to start it up again, so there's zero chance of rerunning the experiment," says Kaplan.

Another possibility is to re-analyse the old HyperCP data for overlooked decay processes, including any that might rule out the Higgs. Kaplan says, "I'm inspired to suggest to my colleagues that we look into this data again."

Valencia hopes that the Large Hadron collider being built at CERN will look for the production of the light Higgs through a number of processes that his team has described. "We hope our results will inspire new searches to confirm or refute that this is the Higgs," he says.

At this point I started to get a little suspicious. We've been interviewing no less than 10 experimental and theoretical physicists working AT Fermilab, not somewhere in Iowa, and I figured that if there was any sniff of the Higgs in previous data they would probably know something about it. So after writing back to Monica I sent of the following message to Rob Roser, John Conway, Robin Erbacher, Ben Kilminster, and Mark Oreglia (familiar names to my regular readers), all experimental physicists working at Fermilab except Dr. Oreglia, who was our first contact and who teaches at the University of Chicago.

Interestingly, my email started up a little mini-conference online between these five. Rob wrote back first, saying he hadn't read this article. Robin said the same thing. Then Ben asked if someone could send the article around. Mark said he hadn't heard of it, which made him suspect it was not sensational news. He found the article and sent it around, and asked the others how to explain to us, the filmmakers, why they don't "jump up and down when they see an article like this!" He gave a quick answer: the article mentioned only 3 events, which is very underwhelming in the world of science (in an earlier post somewhere I mention the fact that scientists hate exceptions and love trends). Then he goes on to say the schema in the paper sounds a bit contrived.

Then Ben chimed in to say that "First of all, this Higgs is not the one we are looking for." He goes on to say that the group who wrote this paper is describing a Higgs that would result from a model of the universe that there is no evidence for, instead of from the model that everyone else uses (the Standard Model). This Higgs, the one from the paper, would have a mass 500 times smaller than the one they are looking for at the Tevatron. In short, from what I can understand from Ben's reply, is that the "evidence" of this Higgs could actually exist well within the margins of experimentation. Almost as though it were part of a "plus or minus 1%" that you might expect from very complicated mathmatical figuring. Turns out that the possibility of this result just occuring without any meaning at all are 1 in 100. His conclusion is that it's not convincing, and is merely a curiosity that should be studied more. When it gets in the neighborhood of the odds of 1 in 10,000 that it could be random, then it might become more significant.

Ben made a link to a paper that he analyzed in order to come to his conclusions. I'm going to link to it here, mainly so that non-scientists reading this blog (perhaps most of you) can experience the interesting sensation of reading something in your native tongue that is completely incomprehensible. I believe the gist of it has to do with the fact that since the Higgs is so fleeting, it really can be detected only by what it leaves behind after it disappears, sort of like trying to identify who was at a party by sniffing the lingering smell of perfume the next morning. This paper is trying to make the case that this particular lingering smell belongs to the Higgs, even though it's a different smell than what people have been looking for. Did you know that smells are described in words such as "note" and "timbre" and "pitch?" Some smells are considered heavy, some light --- it sounds like the Higgs perfume this article was searching for was "pitched" light, with perhaps a fruity finish, with notes of lavender and lilac, and the Higgs perfume the Tevatron is searching for is pitched low, with a rooty, musty aroma, with notes of chocolate and leather.

Thinking of the Higgs boson as a perfume-wearing party patron is what happens when you turn non-scientists loose on things they don't fully understand, but greatly admire. Any scientists reading this, 1. please accept my apologies and 2. write in and correct the madness.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Wondering where I've gone?

Loyal readers --- forgive my lack of proliferation of late. I have switched jobs, and am now teaching full time at Northwestern University (very exciting for me). Getting together three classes from scratch has been a little like re-inventing the wheel three times over. And I've been finishing up a short fiction film called Galileo's Grave that Andrew, Stefani and I shot in the summer. I've been doing sound design and supervising color transfer, etc. etc. for that. Between the two of those things, The Atom Smashers has taken something of a hiatus the last month or so. But Monica and I are meeting soon to discuss strategy, we've been attending some seminars on board development and fundraising, and we are all very eager to jump back in and start editing this sucker. In addition, look for a new and beautiful website soon at our address (

Once things settle down some, I'll be back with more updates. Sorry for the long delay!



Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Status Report

So, where are we?

As I mentioned in the last post, we came back from New York almost done with filming. We then got one more interview: Ben Kilminster (the rollerblading, rock band-singing experimental physicist) presented his Higgs results. He had done some pretty important work in the Higgs area, and so we interviewed him and filmed him doing a "practice talk" before presenting the results (actually, I was out of town, and I think it's the only interview I've missed...).

That interview marked our official end of production. We've now officially moved into "Post-production."


Having said that, there may be an interview here or there that we determine we need once we get into editing, and we can always break out the camera again to get it on tape.

But what's happening now? See here for a summary of the post production phase. We've completed step 1 (digitizing the footage), and (thanks to some terrific help from our interns Cate, Jamie, Robert, and Caleb) we are narrowing in on step 2 (logging the footage). We've also made a dent in step 3 (transcribing the interviews), but still have a ways to go. I'd like to begin step 4 (the paper edit) by the beginning of October, and step 6 (beginning the edit) by November. Step 7, the first deadline (rough cut) is tentatively slated for March.

In addition, other things happen more or less continually --- we applied for another grant recently, and several more are upcoming. We're having a fundraiser Wednesday, and Andrew is going to unveil a much-needed overhaul of our website soon. And we just took a group photo last night... as soon as I get a copy from Stef I'll post it!

Monday, August 28, 2006

East Coast Trip part four

OK, I swear this won't turn into a serial soap opera.

Sometimes you find yourself in situations you don't expect due to circumstances outside your control. For example: Andrew's brother GENEROUSLY donated our rental car. In fact, he upgraded us to a Jeep Grand Wagoneer because we had three people and a bunch of gear. This same brother also allowed us to stay at his very large house in a suburb of DC. One morning, we were really hungry and needed some coffee. I got some directions and headed out to get the group some morning supplies. On the way back I had to make a quick phone call. Suddenly I had to stop and take stock of my situation. I was an SUV-drivin,' Starbucks drinkin', cell-phone talkin' guy wearing sunglasses. I rushed home and took a shower.

So, we left Wednesday evening for New York. We took one of those commuter planes, which normally make me crazy. But this one was pretty smooth. Once we were in the clouds I got out the video camera and got some nice shots to keep myself distracted, and the flight attendant came over and started giving me tips about how to get the best footage of the city when on final approach, such as which side of the plane to shoot from, etc. When she gave the "electronic devices must now be turned off" announcement, she turned a blind eye and let me keep filming.

Luke had our New York accomodations lined up, and after a brief bit of confusion about our driver (we weren't using a taxi, but rather a driving service, which is pretty popular in New York. They're a little cheaper, or sometimes a little more expensive, but you can just call and someone will be around to pick you up. It's a little less hectic than hailing a cab) we made it to our pad for the next two nights: a penthouse apartment in Brooklyn, with a 500 square-foot rooftop balcony that had an amazing view of all of Manhattan. We had a great time at Scott's place. He's a fabric designer, and he gave us a showing of his most recent designs, right after a huge dinner of Jamaican chicken from the place down the street called "The Islands."

Our interview with Dennis Overbye was not confirmed, but was planned for Friday morning. He had just arrived back from China, and we hadn't been in contact in weeks, and weren't 100% sure he still remembered us. I had called and left messages, but we just didn't know anything. Monica was flying in for that interview, and if he wasn't able to do it or had forgotten then her trip (and the 2nd half of ours) would be for nothing. In the meantime, this being Thursday, we had a day to kill. Andrew and Luke unfortunately had free lance work that kept them busy, so I was on my own. I went to the American Museum of Natural History, which was incredible, and then took myself down to Coney Island to see the last of a great institution before it gets the seedy amusement park equivalent of a gut rehab. It was cold, windy, full of trash, and pulsing with hip hop and R&B music. Carny rides whipped screaming kids and people around rusting rides, and tired hawkers tried to convince people to play their games and spend money. One guy was flatly intoning his shtick into a microphone as I walked down the boardwalk, trying to intice the curious or bored with the promise that they could "shoot a live target with a paintball gun. That's right, folks, shoot an actual, living, breathing human being with a paintball gun." I couldn't help but wonder about the poor sucker they found to stand up there, probably in some kind of mildewed foam suit and a football helmet, and get hit with paintballs.

But I got a call from Dennis Overbye and had to duck behind a building to avoid screaming sirens and hawkers. He sounded a little tired from jetlag, and asked "now, what are you interviewing me about?" but generally seemed game.

The next morning I met Monica outside the office of the New York Times in Manhattan and we spent an hour with a cup of coffee planning the interview. Luke and Andrew got stuck in traffic with the gear and were nearly an hour late, but we managed to race up to the conference room for the interview. After a hurried set up, we started.

Dennis was good, but seemed a little tired. He didn't have the same kind of spark that Natalie Angier and Kei Koizumi did, and his "presentation" was a little slow. It didn't make for exactly riveting footage, but he threw us some curves that should keep things interesting. For example, contrary to our other interviews, when asked about Fermilab closing and CERN opening, he shrugged and said "as long as the science happens, it really doesn't matter where." He was pretty uninterested in who did what where, and wasn't even particularly concerned about the trend in US science spending. "If CERN and the Europeans are willing to spend the money," he said, "maybe they should get the discoveries." It will be nice to throw that notion into the mix as well. It will give the viewer a more complex bite to chew on.

His eyes did light up when he discussed a recent trip to Fermilab. He mentioned the CDF detector building, where we have spent so much time, and referred to the huge pieces of equipment as "gigantic brightly-colored toys, looking like a giant child had been playing with them and left them out." It's true --- for some reason, even though the equipment they construct there at Fermilab (some of it for CERN, ironically enough) is incredibly complicated, it is usually housed in a simple, enormous tube or rectangle, and is almost always painted bright orange or blue.

We had to high-tail it out of the New York Times building, into our "driver's" car, and out of Manhattan to the airport in Queens. Then it was back to Chicago where Andrew and I realized somehow we had each forgotten to make a note of where we parked my car (it WAS 4:30 am when we parked, after all), but due to his terrific spatial memory we found it and dazedly went our separate ways, with five more hours of excellent footage in the can. With our total at about 114 hours, we were just about done shooting.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

East Coast Trip part three

So, we had finished two interviews in one day. As strange as it may sound, one interview per day is standard. Two is a workout. First of all, there's the preparation time, spending an hour or two writing up a list of questions, trying to put the interview (and the person) in the larger context of the film. This is important because we've experienced the sensation of getting back and thinking "oh, we should have asked *this!*" It wasn't likely that we'd get back to the East coast, so we had to be comprehensive with our lists. Then there's driving to the interview, spending an extremely rushed hour of setting up equipment, the interview itself (which involves what seems like mental overdrive, cramming two hours' worth of thinking into one hour), another rushed half-hour of tearing down equipment, and finally hitting the road to go home. Doing all that twice in one day is a real brain teaser.

The next day, however, we were back to one interview: with Kei Koizumi (see more about him in previous posts). We set up in a conference room in the AAAS building, and spent about 20 minutes fiddling with the camera angle. Finally Kei came down and we talked for about an hour. He was also great --- like Ms. Angier, he said some things we'd been hearing around the edges but found difficult to pin down on camera. For example, he indicated squarely that this administration hadn't expressed much interest in what he called "curiosity-driven" science research: exactly the category of the search for the Higgs. Things that don't have military, pharmaceutical, or industrial applications; things that don't generate sales, patents, or products. That was the first time I had heard anyone frame it in that way: "curiosity-driven" science. We'd heard the term "pure research," or "for the sake of knowledge" or similar phrases, but never that one. Somehow it seemed incredibly succinct, and very telling. An administration (and a culture?) that abandoned "curiosity-driven" science seemed... well, unfortunate, and even depressing. The Bush administration is not alone in this, of course, and there always has been (and always will be) a struggle between those who have money (the politicians) and those who want to spend it (the list is long, but in this blog we're talking about scientists). Koizumi refered to a famous exchange in 1969 between physicist Robert Wilson (who essentially built Fermilab) and the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy. When asked what Fermilab's accelerator would do to aid in national defense, he answered, "It has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending." These are big words and big thoughts, that still have resonance today. Or, at least, they should.

Friday, August 4, 2006

East Coast Trip part two

After we packed up and left Senator Domenici's office, I got a quick shot of the exterior of the Hart Office building, forgetting for the moment the lesson I learned last year until a security guard came out to remind me that tripods are not allowed on government property. I propped the camera up on a wall and got the shot, just before the sky opened up and dumped a downpour.

We packed up and drove across town, crossing into Virginia and found ourselves in a charming little neighborhood with winding streets and Victorian-era houses. Natalie Angier's house was beautiful, over 100 years old, and full of incredible antiques. Ms. Angier met us at the door and left us alone for a while as we set up shop in her living room. Lighting was a little difficult; it was cloudy outside and therefore a little dim in the living room, but we didn't want to overlight the scene. We positioned her by a window and attempted to enhance the window ambience with a strategically placed light. I think we had mixed results.

As you know if you've been reading this blog, we've been trying to hook up with Natalie Angier for over a year, and so were anticipating this interview. Monica was unable to join us, as I mentioned, and was very disappointed to miss speaking with Ms. Angier. We consulted before I left, however, and I think I represented both of us pretty well.

One reason we had been looking so forward to this interview was that although our scientists gave us a unique and fascinating perspective, they were often loath to step back and comment on the big picture. We struggled with this as filmmakers; while they expressed disappointment with the budget cuts, they stopped short of drawing a conclusion about the Administration's stance on funding science. They hinted at frustration with the nation's rejection of science in the classroom, but resisted critiquing U.S. culture at large. An urgency appeared in their voices and a glint flashed in their eyes when they talked about finding the Higgs before CERN did in Europe, but always followed up with a comment about how science is international and that everyone would win, no matter who made the discovery. In short, they were mostly careful, conservative, and guarded, just like responsible scientists should be.

But careful, conservative, and guarded does not a story make, especially when from the outside it seems anything but. A glance at the multitude of articles (I listed some in a previous post, and could drop links to 15 or 20 more) proclaiming the urgency and complexity of our story indicates that it is, in fact, a dramatic, complex, and even exciting one, involving a confusing and fascinating mix of politics, culture, and science. That's why Monica and I realized early on that we couldn't (and shouldn't) rely on our scientists to be cultural critics.

That's where analysts like Kei Koizumi (more on him shortly) and journalists like Chris Mooney, Dennis Overbye, and Natalie Angier come in. Ms. Angier is an outspoken cultural critic for the New York Times, focusing on the intersection of science, culture, and religion. Made to order for our film.

And she didn't disappoint. Like Rocky Kolb in front of the opera house, she expressed real and heartfelt concern about the direction the U.S. is headed politically and culturally. She said much of what we felt some of our scientists were thinking, but didn't verbalize. She strongly criticized the Bush administration's refusal to accurately and openly engage science and scientists, the worrisome lack of science education in the US, the accelerating trend of physicists and scientists to leave the United States due to a lack of opportunity to work at the head of the field, the politicization of science, and the baffling difficulty Americans have in keeping science and religion separate. This last point was particularly prickly for her, and she has written extensively on it. In short, in a single interview she was able to infuse much of our footage with meaning. She's only one voice, of course, but she provided some balance and even urgency to the mix.

Her temperament was a bit difficult to read. Being a fairly well-known journalist, she had a reputation to protect and uphold, so she often weighed my questions carefully before answering, and seemed a bit self-conscious on camera. In addition, due to noise concerns, we had to switch off the air conditioner, and it was steadily getting more and more steamy in the living room. I tend to watch for signs of weariness, boredom, anxiety, or nervousness as I interview people, gauging how much longer I can go (Monica and I have earned a reputation, I fear, for saying "we just have one more question" and then 30 minutes later continuing to pump our subject for more information. That's why it was actually something of a relief when Mr. Domenici simply said "thank you" and took off the mic). It was hard to tell with Ms. Angier. We finished in just over an hour, and after the interview I got my first indication that she had a more or less positive response to our session when she asked who we were speaking to next and her eyes lit up a little when we mentioned her colleague, Dennis Overbye. "Oh," she said, "I think he'll be great to talk to." She then proceeded to give us his home, office, and cell numbers. Perhaps I was reading too much into the situation, but I figure if she thought we were buffoons she would have tried to keep us away from her friend at all costs...

Her husband came home and indicated that Kei Koizumi, our next subject, was a "real straight shooter" and a good guy. Their daughter was slightly interested in the fact that her mother was being interviewed on camera, but was more interested in getting to her Karate practice. We packed up quickly, waved goodbye, and piled into the SUV, tired but happy with how our first day had gone.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

East Coast Trip part one

Andrew and I arrived at O'Hare airport at 4:30 am. That's right, I said 4:30 AM. We had a lot of equipment to lug and check, and Andrew wisely wanted lots of time to make sure it all made it. After all, our first interview was later that same day in Washington DC. We had a lovely breakfast at the airport McDonald's and soon were on our way out east. I've developed a small flying phobia in the last few years for no particular reason, so I battled my nerves as we headed out across Lake Michigan and I watched the Chicago lakefront skyline scroll by beneath us. It's the turbulence. As much as my brain tells me that the plane engineers knew about turbulence when they designed the planes and built them accordingly, when those bumps start something much deeper that my intellect starts saying "this is all wrong!"

But I made it. We hit Ronald Reagan airport and Andrew went to grab our rental car, generously donated by his brother. It was a Jeep Grand Wagoneer, and for once I was grateful for having an SUV. We met up with Luke who had taken the next flight, and by the time the three of us and all our gear piled in we were pretty tight. Monica was unable to attend the first part of the week and was scheduled to meet up with us on Friday in New York.

Our first interview was with Senator Pete Domenici from New Mexico. We parked the car in a parking garage, did a quick clothing change, admired Luke's super-fly sunglasses, and went to the Hart office building in the swampy summer midmorning. DC was in the midst of intense rainfall and flooding, and the air was thick with moisture. We made our way to Senator Domenici's office, where we found the first clear evidence of seniority: his office was a sprawling multi-room affair with 12 foot ceilings and lots of artwork from his native state. His "people" greeted us, we waited a few moments, and then were shown in. The senator was not there yet, so we whipped out our gear and set up the camera, lights, and sound in near-record time. Finally the senator approached. One of his staffers (they all seemed to be Young Republicans either still in college or just out) came up to me and politely explained that the Senator was very keen on discussing his recent PACE initiative (which happened to be the same thing I wanted to talk to him about --- the report he had commissioned from the National Academies of Science which recommended increasing science and math in the classroom, ominously titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm"). She said she would be sitting in on the interview just to make sure the Senator... that he... just to be sure...

"OK," I said, a little unclear. "That's fine."

So she and another staffer sat in the large office as Senator Domenici came in. He had a huge desk and Luke framed it up nicely.

"Senator," the staffer said, a bit loudly and slowly, "they're here to talk to you about the PACE initiative."

"Right," the senator said. He was moving a little slowly, and seemed a bit small behind the desk.

I started right in with a question about the reasons why he had commissioned the report. I was interested in hearing him describe why it was that he felt so concerned about America's scientific position in the world that he commissioned an expensive study to recommend what to do.

He started speaking, and started squeaking.

He was rubbing his shoes back and forth across the footrest of his desk. Luke, who had the headphones on, later described it as if there were a clown just off-camera making balloon animals the entire time he was talking. Not wanting to startle him, I waiting until he finished, then casually said "Senator, do you ever, you know, just kick off your shoes while you're here in your office?"

"Do I ever!" he said gleefully, and kicked them off. Problem solved.

I had expected to get a lot of boilerplate Republican rhetoric, but I soon discovered a second example of seniority. Senator Domenici was born in 1932 and has been in the senate for 34 years, and he's beholden to no one. He was extraordinarily frank about what he thought about this administration's leadership in the field of science.

"I used to think he might be able to pull it out," he said. "But now I think it's pretty clear that this will go down as a failed presidency."

"Look," he went on, "I went in there and I told him he'd better get moving on the science and the math. Other countries are threatening us on all shores with economic and scientific progress."

"So, in the last State of the Union address," I asked, "when President Bush announced his new initiative to increase science and math in the classroom, you had some influence there?"

Then came the third example of seniority. He smiled a sort of wry smile as if to say "Influence, hell."

"That was all me," he said. "I told him to say that, and he did."

Later he said some very specific things about Fermilab, including an intriguing and almost cryptic remark about restoring Fermilab's budget. I tried to follow up, but he said he probably shouldn't say anything more about that.

His aides didn't have to jump in or correct him or spur him on, but I could tell he was getting a little tired and after one particularly well-turned phrase he said "thank you" and took off his microphone. Interview over.

We thanked him and quickly packed up. As we were working he called for "my staff lady." She came in. "No, no," he barked, "My other staff lady." I suspected the short-term things like names were a little slippery for him. When we left we thanked him again, and I noticed his shoes were still off.

Outside in the staffers' office his publicist quickly informed us that he would have to approve the interview. I hedged a little. This was not something we did. I told him it would be months before we knew what we would use. The aide was pretty firm, and finally Luke came up with the solution that we would send him the "selects," or the bits we planned to put in the final edit for approval. This seemed to be fine with the aide. It finally was made clear that they were nervous about that bit about restoring the Fermilab budget. "We can't be sure what that budget will do," the aide said. "The senator might not be accurate about that." He gave us a little look like "we never know what the hell the senator is going to say these days." We found them all to be very gracious and helpful, and the Senator was surprisingly frank and poignant. Like I said --- that probably comes with seniority. He was an old school senator --- the ones who actually believed in what they did.

OK, strike that cynicism from the record.

Next stop was Natalie Angier from the New York Times.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Back in the midwest

Our east coast trip was great. (OK, so we did not get a call from the President. I have a feeling that our chances might have been better if our letter asked for an interview in 6 weeks, or a few months, instead of waiting to ask 3 days before arriving in DC.) We spent 3 days in DC and 2 days in New York, then returned. I spent the weekend editing a different project, and was promptly struck down with a kidney stone for 10 days. I'm still a bit dazed, so the full trip report will have to wait until tomorrow or the next day.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Going back East...

Monday Andrew, Luke, and I will depart from Chicago's O'Hare airport to Reagan airport in DC. There we will have a bunch of interviews... first, with Natalie Angier and Dennis Overbye (talked about them a couple of posts back). As well, we'll be talking to Kei Koizumi, an expert on Federal science spending for the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). And Andrew just scored us one I was really hoping for, Senator Pete Domenici from New Mexico (talked about him as well). We didn't get Ray Orbach again, and although Speaker Hastert is waffling, nibbling at the hook, odds are he won't bite because he's too busy.

But that's a full plate ...

And get this. Last night I was thinking ... what the heck... and faxed the following document:

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President ---

My name is Clayton Brown and I'm a documentary filmmaker from Chicago, Illinois. My company, a non-profit documentary company called 137 Films, is currently filming a documentary about Fermilab, America's biggest particle accelerator, located in Batavia, Illinois.

A major theme in our film is America's relationship with science, and its role as a world science leader. In your last State of the Union Address, you mentioned the importance you and your administration place on scientific leadership, and your efforts to strengthen the role science plays in the lives of school children.

We would very much like to interview you for our film. So far, in addition to many of the physicists at Fermilab, we have interviewed your science advisor, John Marburger, Congresswoman Judy Biggert, and are in negotiations with Speaker Hastert, Ray Orbach, Congressman Pete Domenici from New Mexico, and Congressman Waxman from California.

We will be in Washington DC from June 26-29. Would you allow us to speak with you on camera for a short, 10-minute interview? We would ask you the following questions:

1. How important is it for the United States to remain a world leader in scientific research?
2. What do you and your administration do to ensure that leadership status?
3. Why does the United States need to support its scientists and the research they do?

We would very much like to include your voice in this story. We hope you'll consider our request.

Thank you in advance. We look forward to hearing from you.


Clayton Brown
Director/Producer, 137 Films

So, right now I'm going to call the White House switchboard! Wish me luck... I'll write back and let you know what happens...

OK, back --- got a very nice guy in media relations... faxing him the info...

So, our fax is "being processed." I'll be in DC before I find out. Will try to post from there...

wish us luck!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Still more proof

Check out this NPR story. Sort of a summary of our film...

Thursday, May 18, 2006

More proof...

...that we're on the right track. See this editorial in the NY Times. (Thanks to Rita Patel for the link)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Gotta love the local news

Chicago's CBS channel just did a story on Fermilab ... kind of a riot, in a way. I'm including the transcript, which reads a bit like an extended haiku:

West Suburban Lab Studies Mysteries of Universe

Ever wonder what the folks at Fermilab do?

One of their big missions is smashing the building blocks of atoms to understand the big mysteries of the universe.

We got an up close look at the machine that makes it possible for this installment of Only In Chicago, CBS 2’s Kristyn Hartman reports.

This is no ordinary stroll.

The tunnel Hartman walks through is part of Fermilab's Tevatron.

Maintenance is the only reason Hartman could walk part of its four-mile circumference.

It and its components are large.

So large the Tevatron supposedly is one of the only manmade things you can see from space, but hardly the only distinction that sets it apart.

“Right now we're the highest energy accelerator in the world,” said physicist Robin Erbacher.

“The beam ends up going around the Tevatron 47,000 times per second,” said physicist Roger Dixon.

He's talking about the work of the supersized machine which deals in particles not visible to the naked eye.

When it's up and running, the Tevatron “accelerates particles quickly, smashes them together and sees what comes out in hopes of learning more about the nature of the universe,” Erbacher said.

Including the origin of the universe.

“And we can go back in this machine to like a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, recreate the conditions that existed then … but we cannot go to the ultimate cause,” Dixon said.

Yet physicists like Dixon and Erbacher are working on it.

“It’s actually kind of cool,” Erbacher said.

Call it big science happening right in your backyard.

Not to mention, “it’s only here in Chicago right now,” Dixon said.

Wow. That's somehow strangely poetic --- until you actually see the piece, which has that sing-songy inflection that local newscasters are known for. That's Robin Erbacher, the same Robin we've been interviewing for 18 months. Notice that red hard hat with the yellow letters, that I discussed here.

It's hard to know what to say about this news story. On the one hand, it's great that the local news station is doing a story about Fermilab. They got a pretty decent amount of information out in 60 seconds or so: a viewer knows it smashes together building blocks of atoms to find out more about how the universe works, and that it's currently the biggest such machine in the world. They know that they can figure out details almost all the way back to the big bang itself by using this machine. At the end the reporter mentions that there is a bigger one opening in CERN for "a little friendly competition." They got some nice shots.

But something about the story is a little unsettling, too --- maybe just because I've been learning so much about Fermilab and what's going on there, but also because it's distressing to me how little can be said about science anymore to the general public. In my opinion science gets treated a little like entertainment in Hollywood: a viscious cycle down to the lowest common denomenator. Big action movies get dumber and dumber because they think that's what people want to see. People see them because they are driven by advertising. Hollywood makes more, bigger, dumber, and people keep seeing them. Gradually that's what people want to see, and they push the films bigger and bigger and dumber and dumber. Pretty soon it's just assumed that people don't want to see smaller smarter movies, and when a small smart movie comes out no one sees it because all they're used to seeing is big dumb ones.

I feel the same is true for science --- it's assumed no one is smart enough or interested enough in science to sit through it, so it's dumbed down. People get used to thinking that they can't understand or aren't interested in science, so they stop paying attention to it, and it gets dumbed down even more. The cycle continues until the only science you see in a museum is in a children's exhibit and when a documentary deals with science it must have a video game's equivalent of graphics, nutty music, and a breathtaking pace, skipping over all the details.

But back to this news story. The piece doesn't mention protons, anti-protons, or quarks. It says "beam" but doesn't explain what "beam" is. She says "most people don't think of magnets being this big", but doesn't explain what the magnet does or why it needs to be big. There are two or three graphics that they have filmed off of monitors which don't have anything to do with what is being discussed. No one gave a simple analogy about what the tevatron actually does.

I know this is a fluff piece without the intent to teach or explain anything. But my point is that there could be a 60 second piece made that gave a really clear explanation of what went on at Fermilab and why it was important without going over anyone's head, but still using good solid information. AND be entertaining.

I think I might be especially sensitive to this point (or hadn't you noticed?). --- I must confess Monica and I have been grappling with it. Our story features an incredible scientific scenario, but if you've been reading this blog you know that the energy we've been pouring into the story lately has been in the areas of politics and culture. I hope we can find a good balance --- Monica has been very careful not to dash my dreams of a film that engages thoughtfully and deeply with the science, which has always made my pulse quicken, but I think she would probably prefer, in her heart of hearts, to strictly pursue the politics and the culture with a respectful but dimished role for the science. In her experience, she's observed the glazed-over eyes of friends and colleages when she describes the science part of our story, and a perking of the ears when politics and culture enter the discussion. I get slightly the opposite reaction, so I think it must stem partially from the source. For this reason (and others) we're a good match and will probably find a perfect balance (and let's not forget, I"m very excited by the politics and culture and Monica is a self-confessed "science fan.")

But what's wrong with everyone?!! Why is everyone so afraid of science?? News stories like this one from Chicago's local news make me cringe.

But I have come to realize that I might be in the minority.

I'm not old enough to be a curmudgeon, am I? I'd like to hear your thoughts. Go check out the link soon --- I think it might expire.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

It's a hot topic

Things have been chaotic around the head office of 137 Films.
OK, so actually we don't have a head office. Monica, Andrew and I communicate by email and phone, but things are increasing from busy to frantic. The strange thing is we haven't actually gotten the camera out in weeks.

Why is it so busy? Strangely enough, our topic is bubbling up so fast in the media now that we're having a hard time keeping up. The notion that the US is on the verge of falling behind in science, largely due to the current administrations dubious relationship with science, is so "current" right now that anywhere you look there are articles. Science publications, government publications, newspapers and magazines across the country, TV and radio spots, and even fashion magazines (I just came across a blog pointing to an article in Glamour magazine, of all places, claiming the government's science information can't be trusted. As the blogsaid, "when Glamour criticizes your science, you've got a problem."

But seriously, the topic is everywhere --- as I pointed out in the last post, it was an editorial in Scientific American. It's here, from our man Chris Mooney (whom we've interviewed 2 or 3 times), here, (from Dennis Overbye in the NYTimes, whom we're courting for an interview), here, (ditto), here, here, here, here, here, here, and many more that I'm not pasting in. Not only that, on WBEZ, our local npr station, there was just a news story about it since our governor declared April 21 as National Particle Acclerator Day, if you can believe that.

It's a little overwhelming... we keep expanding the interview wish list, then cutting it back, then expanding it, racing to read the articles, etc. It's also a little gratifying to know that we have been working on this story for some time, but frustrating that our film is not going to come out for several more months, and might seem late on the story by the time it appears. But I suspect the situation will persist for some time...

It's also a little frustrating that we're having a bit of trouble contacting people now. We have either overstayed our welcome at Fermilab, people are too busy to respond, or there's something wrong with the email server (mmm hmm). We're working on it, but I suspect our charm has worn off. The subject line "interview request" doesn't seem to generate the same excitement it once did.

We're planning a trip to the East Coast for June 22-27, at which point we'll hopefully get in touch with Dennis Overbye and Natalie Angiers of the NYTimes, Senators Dick Durbin and Pete Dominici, Dept. of Energy chairman Roy Orbach, and perhaps others, including Shirley Jackson of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We're also hoping to set up an interview with this guy from Fermilab, who was just appointed to the National Academy of Sciences, who also penned "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," a publication that's credited with spurring the Bush administration to propose increasing money for physical science in the most recent budget (that's what Robin and Rob were a little excited about when they downloaded the budget on camera in February. That report was commissioned by Pete Dominici, and it's why we want to interview him).

And then, we plan to cease the "production" phase of our film on July 1 and move firmly into "post-production," which means editing, editing, editing.

Things are busy around here --- if only they would pay us to do this...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

We couldn't have said it better --- wait, yes we could

As a science-nut, I get Scientific American. I love that magazine. Imagine my surprise when I opened up the first page and read ... an EXACT SYNOPSIS OF OUR MOVIE. That's right. It's as if someone had sat down with us, spent a couple of hours interviewing us, done some fact-checking, and then written a one-page summary of our documentary.

Don't believe me? Check it out. It's called "The Collider Calamity"and features a lovely picture of the Fermilab Hi Rise, where we have spent so much time the last 18 months.

Yes, that's right, editors of Scientific American. EIGHTEEN MONTHS we've been working on this story. It's with a strange mixture of pride and anxiety that I read this article: pride that we're so ahead of the curve, and anxiety that we've got to move quickly and finish our film before it becomes old news.

I'm tempted to write a letter to the editors and tell them about our film in progress, with a big fat link to our web site. What do you think? Should I do it?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Budget Monday

So, another State of the Union address, another federal budget announcement. We were in place this time around, unlike last year (see "Our moment--- and we missed it" feb 2005) --- Rob and Robin had dueling laptops, both surfing, trying to find the budget release. They hooked up to a real-time feed of the president's office announcing the budget, and they were racing around the internet trying to find real numbers. It was actually pretty exciting, believe it or not. They were trying to find out the fate of Fermilab, essentially --- I got a lot of hand-held camera and watched as they got some good news (Robin actually clapped and cheered).

Fermilab looked to do pretty well this time around. No funding was cut, and there was a modest increase (although still far short of their hopes in the last few years). Monica and I weren't exactly sure what to expect. Soon it became clear that it wasn't exactly peaches and cream. As Robin said, in order to throw a little bone to Fermilab, someone else had to take it on the chin. There just wasn't enough money to go around --- there were thumbs and fingers stopping up some of the holes, but the dike was still flooding.

Sure enough, NASA soon thereafter announced funding troubles. The Boston Globe published an article called "Young Scientists Hit the Hardest as US Funding Falls." Newsday reported that Brookhaven Lab had to accept donations from its board members to keep running its collider. And Newport News' Daily Press reports that Jefferson Lab, a physics laboratory run by the D.O.E. (the dept. of energy, the same dept. that funds Fermilab) has to eliminate up to 45 jobs and "slow the pace of research on equipment that brings scientists worldwide to Newport News."

So, despite the seemingly good news in Fermilab's budget, things are still far from rosy in the realm of science in America. So much so that recently a well-known and high-ranking physicist not only quit Fermilab in disgust, but quit the entire field of physics, he was so sick of the way things had been going.

So our story is not quite complete. We are after a couple more interviews, including (hopefully) one with Peter Overbye of the New York Times and Natalie Angiers (also of the NY Times, whom we've been trying to track down for months). We'd like to get another interview with the director of Fermilab, as well as one with our science advisor who has given us some very interesting information about the potential changing of who controls Fermilab: it's always been a consortium of universities, but in order to save money the D.O.E. is considering allowing an organization with connections to (of all things) ... Halliburton.

Whew. I feel like we need a degree in investigative journalism...

Oh, and a way to quit our day jobs...

PS I added some to the previous post, so check it out again.

Jet Set

On February 5 we met with John Conway at O'Hare, just as he was flying back to California. He and Robin fly back and forth between California and Fermilab about once per week. That means getting on a plane for a 3 hour flight about every three days. Personally, I don't think I could handle it, but the two of them seem to take it in stride. In fact, most of the physicists we've been talking to have integrated a massive travel schedule into their lives without too much difficulty. We know this because each time we've contacted them for interviews there's about a 1/3 chance they'll be in Washington DC, in Geneva, or somewhere else.

Anyway, we caught up with John because we wanted to talk to him before the budget is released. He had heard some optimistic news, which we later confirmed with Rob Roser. Apparently the budget will allow for a modest gain in Fermilab's budget, giving them a little breathing room. Not only that, in President Bush's state of the union address a few days ago he indicated a priority in funding basic science. It seems as though he has been hearing the same grumblings and worrying that we have been focusing on and is reacting to try to counter the idea that America's science acumen is in real danger. He also described an increase in funding for math and science in schools.

In fact, the "grumblings and worrying" were encapsulated in a report that came out in October of last year. It was commissioned by a couple of senators who asked the National Academy of Sciences to figure out what the US needed to do to "enhance the science and technology enterprise" in order to stay afloat. Ominously, the report that was written was entitled, ahem, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." Not exactly cheery.

So, anyone who read this report could see it coming in this year's state of the union address. Bush was not going to act as if he hadn't read it. According to a Baltimore Sun article, Bush said "In my State of the Union, I'm going to address this. In order for us to be competitive, we better make darn sure our future has got the skills to fill the jobs of the 21st century." The article goes on to say that the "Gathering Storm" report has "captured the administration's attention and is helping to shape Bush's agenda."

So, we'll be watching to see what gets said.

We also wanted to talk to John about something else --- in an email he mentioned that Fermilab's Tevatron was starting to look like "a dry hole;" in other words, without much chance for discovery. He seems to be focused more and more on making the jump to CERN in Geneva. He seemed to think that if a discovery were in the offing at Fermilab, they would have had traces of it by now. Since there has been nothing, it makes him think that any discovery possibilities lie in the energy levels beyond what Fermilab is capable of producing. I know I keep using car analogies, but they seem to work so well, so here's another: imagine those car crash facilities where they hook a car to a cable, run it down a tunnel, and smash it into something. Let's say they've rigged it to smash two cars together. The Ford facility can only get cars up to 50 mph for their crashes. But they're looking to see what happens when metal starts to break apart, and they can't get it to happen at a 50 mile per hour crash. Down the street, though, GM is building a tunnel that can crash cars together at 100 miles per hour. The Ford guy is starting to think that no matter how many 50 mph crashes they do, they won't discover anything new. He starts looking at the GM website under "employment opportunities."

Friday, January 20, 2006

One year later...

Bush's budget for FY 2007 will be announced Feb 6. We're definitely going to be there this time. Also, March 1 is still the planned shut down date for the year's general maintenance. It was supposed to be back in December, but the Tevatron was performing so well that they decided to run it until March. And finally, Ben will be presenting his Higgs results to be "blessed" (given approval for public release) in March. That will probably be our last bit of shooting, and will wrap our "production" phase of the documentary. We won't hesitate to whip out the camera again if something comes up, of course.

As I mentioned earlier, we've already started on the initial "post-production" phase. We've got many hours of footage to slog through, and we're going to enlist the help of a couple of interns to get this accomplished. In addition to that, we've got to start tracking down some of the media clips we want to use... an intern for that as well.

A fundraiser is approaching ... watch this space for details...