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...