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.


Professor said...

I think we're pretty close in age and I know I'm a curmudgeon. Sorry to break the news to ya.

Do not dumb anything down. I think there's a way to properly express some of the technical aspect you want to. The car anology is perfect. Could someone animate it for you? Something like that?

I don't know, I'm not much of a filmmaker.

You'll have to excuse me, some kids are on my lawn and I have to go shoo them off.

tickmeister said...

I'm a little older and a fill blown curmudgeon. Any kids on my lawn, I shoot the little bastards. (Actually just shots around their feet so they scream and run).

Sadly, I fear that most people are simply dumber than dogshit and don't care about much of anything other than vegin' out in front of the tube and scratching their asses and lottery tickets. I think that a major reason that politicians don't support science so much is that they realize that the voting population doesn't have a clue about it.

I have two suggestions for ameliorating the consequences of mass dumbdom. First, outlaw TV. If we can outlaw recreational drugs, we can outlaw TV which does far more harm. Force some people to wake up.

Second, make it a lot harder to vote. It drives me nuts that anybody thinks it should be easier to vote so that more people will do it. There are way too many people voting now. Make it hard enough that anybody that can qualify to do it will have to be smart enough to understand what the hell they are voting about.