Sunday, June 24, 2007

Gettin' geeky wid it

I have two computers running. The first, my 17-inch mac laptop, is connected to our firewire tape deck and a giant 500GB hard drive and is digitizing some of the 120 hours of footage we have shot so far. We have two of these big hard drives now, bringing our hard-drive total to nearly two terrabytes.

Video is incredibly, incredibly storage hungry. Each hour-long interview takes up about 15 gigabytes. And just a three years ago, when we started this project, hard drives cost a lot of money, so we could only afford a grand total of 250 gigabyes. So we had to digitize our beautiful footage at low-resolution.

Let me try that again: we have 120 hours of video for this documentary. 120 hours X 15 gigabytes = 1800 gigabytes, or 1.8 terrabytes. In the editing room you want to be able to see and access all of it, so what were we going to do?

Luckily, Final Cut Pro (the video editing software I use) has a low-resolution setting. You can digitize your video footage at a lower rate that cuts the size by about a factor of ten.

Unfortunately, a bi-product of this lower resolution means that the video footage looks fuzzy and is 1/2 the size. So I've been cutting together our film by watching it on a frame about the size of a credit card.

But thanks to rapidly declining hard drive costs (here's a great chart that shows the initial cost per megabyte in 1956 [$10,000] and the cost in 2004 [per GIGABYTE, $1.15]. Should be noted that the cost has approximately halved since then) we were able to purchase our terrabyte last month. So, at long last, the reason for this post: I'm finally able to start digitizing everything at full-resolution, and will soon see all our interview subjects and Fermilab's incredible environment in crisp detail and at full size.

I bring all this up because we've been lucky enough to have access to quite a bit of vintage fermilab footage, and in an interview in the 1980s Leon Lederman was discussing how he imagined advances in computer technology would mean faster processors, more storage space, and therefore more ability to analyze particle collisions. There are literally millions of collisions between protons and anti-protons that take place in the giant donut-shaped detectors at Fermilab. The computer systems from a few decades ago recorded information about them on tape, and (I'm surmising here) could most likely only pay attention to a percentage of the collisions that happened (the equivalent of fuzzy, half-sized images). Now, with the banks and banks of computers that are orders of magnitude faster and with vast, practically unlimited quantities of hard-drive space, the detectors can "look at" many more collisions (this is called the "trigger," and is one of the things Ben Kilminster works with) and determine in a split zillionth of a second which ones are boring and ordinary and can be ignored, which ones are possibly interesting (a few of which should be saved and looked at later), and which ones are "golden collisions," as Lederman said and need to be saved and studied in great detail. As I said, all this happens MILLIONS of times per second. Only possible with the incredible speed of computers and the drastic reductions in cost that computer equipment has seen in the last couple of decades. It's been estimated that CERN is going to generate one dvd of data per second. Per second! That's 4.7 gigabytes per second, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Just not possible a couple of decades ago. Want 500 gigabytes of hard drive space in 1989? It's going to cost you. It cost about $800 for 20 MEGAbytes back then: 500 GB would be over... wait for it... 16 million dollars. Ha! Now, you can plunk down less than $200 bucks. As John Conway pointed out to us, a huge factor in the amazing advances in high energy physics is a result of simple economics (and Moore's Law). Stuff is cheaper now.

So, I'm digitizing in full-resolution, and Ben Kilminster is looking at amazing amounts of good data in his work with the trigger, and you're reading this blog split seconds after I post it. All thanks to our friends in Silicon Valley. Makes even more funny the (purported) statement from Thomas Watson, Sr., president of IBM from the 1920s through the 1950s, that "there is a world market for maybe five computers." If that were the case, I'd be a heck of a lot more handy with film, razor blades, and adhesive; Ben Kilminster would be spooling through miles of magnetic tape; and you would have no idea our film exists.

OK, so it doesn't exist YET...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Possible explanation for all the rumors?

Good grief, yet another article about this rumor about the possible discovery of the Higgs! This one from no less than ABC news, which looks like it picked up the story verbatim from Wired.

This stuff is infectious --- despite being told clearly from one of the leaders of the search for the Higgs that no, it's just a rumor, seeing it appear so many times in the media has an effect! Is it possible?

I don't think so. I think the media, like the Queen Mary, is very hard to stop once set in motion. And here's something no one seems to be picking up: that D-zero at Fermilab DID make a discovery of a new particle that was just published. They discovered a baryon called the "cascade b" baryon, having three different kinds of quarks. It only lasts for a few trillionths of a second. Here's a link to that story, which didn't seem to grab national headlines just last week when it was announced. Doesn't it seem likely that THIS was the particle that caused all the rumors?

I do have to admit, however, that what Judy Jackson (the PR person at Fermilab, whom we have interviewed a couple of times) said is actually more notable for what she DIDN'T say:

"We're delighted that there is this level of interest, but we can't say too strongly that there are some stringent criteria for being able to claim one has seen something in a particle physics experiment," said Fermilab spokeswoman Judy Jackson. "There are many examples of things that people thought they have seen that have promptly disappeared."

It does make one curious why she didn't just come out and say "No. It's all a rumor. We didn't find it. We'll let you know," just like John Conway told us.

More rumor mill

And I thought we had single-handedly dispelled the rumor about the discovery of the higgs at Fermilab. I'm stunned that my blog hasn't been referenced by all the news media. I mean, after all, didn't we already set the record staight three posts ago? (wink) Apparently not: another article.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A nod to our interns

We're lucky --- through a couple of university programs, word of mouth, and a couple of "hey, I like the project --- can I help?" conversations, we have a terrific staff of seven interns. Sarah is looking up media clips and checking on rights and availability, Gracie is currently writing up our next grant proposal, Stephen and Robert are beginning to step up as assistant editors, Tricia has been working on transcriptions, Mars has been compiling our film festival plan, and Ross has been working on graphic design and scanning. Having them makes our monthly meetings a lot more fun. There's good energy around the room.

Our next hope is that we can get some office space donated in the loop somewhere --- we've got a couple of leads on that.

Our next "deadline" is a screening at the veritable Kartemquin on June 29. The goal is to have the first 2/3 of the film done by then.

Back to work...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The race is still on ... again

Back when I first got interested in this project, what drew me to the story was the race between Fermilab and CERN to find the Higgs boson. Since we started filming nearly three years ago, that aspect of the story was downplayed by the Fermilab scientists ("it's a competitive collaboration." "It doesn't matter who gets there first; everybody wins." "We work there, they work here. It's not really about 'us' vs. 'them.' Well, sort of. But not really.") So we concentrated on other things, and turns out there were some really fascinating parts of the story (politics, culture, etc) that kept our attention.

But we're storytellers, and that notion of a race just kept simmering below the surface.

Well, it turns out we're not the only ones who have been thinking in terms of a competition. Despite assurances to the contrary from some physicists, there is definitely a race on, and there has always been. At least, according to the media there is. Consider this article from across the pond in The Guardian from London. I'll quote some choice bits for you. First of all, the article tells us of "a certain nervousness among Europe's scientific elite" as CERN grows closer to completion. They insist that when CERN is switched on in November of this year it will "hum into life as expected," yet nevertheless "there is an air of concern in the corridors and offices of the LHC's home at Cern, Europe's particle physics laboratory."

Why? Why is CERN concerned? Why are Europe's scientific elite breaking out into a sweat?

The competition, my friend, the competition. It's heating up. I love this part, the explanation of what's got the Europeans so nervous:

Such worries are focused less on the possible failure, however, and more on the issue of timing. Physicists know it will take months to tune their hadron collider (hadrons are a class of particle that includes the proton) to a perfect pitch so it churns out the data that they need to find new particles. And that gap could be awkward, for delays just might allow a bunch of upstart Americans, using a rival, older and less powerful device, to beat Europe to the draw. For the past few months, scientists at the Fermilab laboratory in Illinois have hinted that their ageing accelerator, the Tevatron, may be on the threshold of uncovering the Holy Grail of modern physics: the Higgs boson, or the God particle, as it is sometimes known.

"A bunch of upstart Americans?" Makes it sound like a few dudes got together in a parking lot. But it gets better:

Finding the Higgs was a prime reason for constructing the LHC [the collider at CERN]. Its tunnels, super-conducting magnets, experiment halls and banks of computers have been put together with this very much in mind. For almost a decade, Cern has concentrated on this project, at the expense of virtually all other research. But now, at the last minute, the Yanks are threatening to steal Europe's thunder: a galling prospect.

Oh, that's rich. "The Yanks: a galling prospect." It's funny that they say "at the last minute" here. Fermilab and "the yanks" have been searching for the Higgs all along, since the 70s and 80s. That was one of the main reasons we almost built the Superconducting Supercollider. If Fermilab does find the Higgs, it certainly won't be as if they just decided to start looking on a whim last year. Chris Quigg, one of the first theoretical physicists we interviewed, has dedicated a good part of his life to the search. And Leon Lederman wrote a whole book about it (unfortunately) titled "The God Particle." They even call it "The God Particle" in this article. [Lederman swears the editor forced that title on him because he said they had to sell more books].

And if there was any more doubt?

European scientists insist they are not downhearted. If the Americans want a battle, they can have one. 'We have spent most of the last decade building this machine,' says Professor Jim Virdee, of Imperial College London. 'Now we are almost there. There is a real buzz about the place. The race is on.'

The article is just loaded with juicy suggestions of a race between these two rival labs. And there is a really great setup here: a classic David and Goliath. CERN is seven times more powerful than Fermilab, it's brand new, and has a palpable buzz of excitement. Fermilab, on the other hand, is old (built in the late 60s), less powerful, and the scientists there are fully aware that its accelerator has only a couple of years of operation before the plug gets pulled. CERN estimates (with some bravado, perhaps) that they'll be lucky "to make more than one or two [Higgs particles] a day." It will therefore take "several months," we're told, before they can confirm they've found it. Several months? Sigh. Fermilab estimates it will take several years unless they're really lucky.

But luck may be on their side. Due to a most unfortunate, really, most unfortunate accident, some of the magnets that Fermilab built for CERN ... well, they blew up. Sorry! So the latest estimates, written after this article came out, are that CERN won't be up and running this November, but rather will be put back until April 2008. Oops!

All kidding aside, no one seriously believes that Fermilab did any kind of sabotage to hurt its rival's chances. And we don't either. But an article just sent to me by Monica today proclaims that Fermilab is now considering keeping the Tevatron, "Fermilab's venerable particle accelerator," up and running for an extra year.

Mmmm... sounds like a race to me...

But then again, I guess I AM in the media.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Rumor Mill

A couple of weeks ago I was at Northwestern, where I teach, getting ready for a screening of some of my students' work. I got an email that read "interesting article." Included was a link to an article on Slate, the online magazine. The title? "Quantum Scoop: The Holy Grail of Particle Physics May Already Have Been Found."

Ulp --- !! Huh??

It gives a nice summary of the situation in the first couple of paragraphs, highlighting all the press the Higgs boson has been garnering of late. Then it goes on to say

"A rumor flying around physics departments these last few weeks claims that physicists working at the Tevatron, an accelerator located outside of Chicago, have found something new. Originally passed by word of mouth and private e-mail, the rumor made it into the blogosphere May 28, with an anonymous comment on the blog of a particle physicist living in Venice, Italy. Since then, the rumor has spread."

Naturally, I ran outside and started doing some phone calling. I then ran back inside and dashed off an email to our friends at Fermilab. I mean, after all --- we're in touch with the people leading the search for the Higgs boson. Surely they would have at least given us a phone call? Email? Letter? No? It honestly wasn't too hard to imagine: they're excited, working feverishly, checking and cross-checking, and maybe the last thing they would do is stop and think "oh, yeah, we should get in touch with those guys making the documentary." As I've mentioned before, sometimes I feel as though I have to continually remind them that we're still here.

So I got an email back from John Conway pretty quickly. He said he was curious about it all --- a science writer from the NYTimes had emailed him earlier. He wanted me to send him the link. I did, and he wrote back that "the rumor had been flying around for several weeks." He said, quite directly, "we don't have anything like that, I can assure you."

So, I breathed a sigh of relief. But at the same time, I must confess I was disappointed. I had gotten a glimpse of the kind of moment a documentary filmmaker dreams of, only to have it disappear as quickly as a decaying subatomic particle (I must really apologize for that analogy).

But two things gave me encouragement. The first was another line from John a few days later that said "the hunt is heating up, who knows what we'll find..." and the second was his assurance that "We will let you know, I promise!"