Saturday, August 11, 2007

The God Particle

OK, I guess we all had it coming. Sooner or later I had to pull that moniker out of the drawer and throw it up there. "The God Particle."

I'm doing it now because our esteemed interview subject and Deputy Science Editor for The New York Times, Dennis Overbye, recently wrote an article, or an essay, really, called "What's in a Name? Parsing the 'God Particle,' the Ultimate Metaphor." I'll just quote one bit here:

In a stroke of either public relations genius or disaster, Leon M. Lederman, the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, referred to the Higgs as “the God particle” in the book of the same name he published with the science writer Dick Teresi in 1993.

Lederman claims (and he told us when we interviewed him) that the whole "God Particle" thing was his publisher's idea. I believe him. But apparently it's caused a lot of eye-rolling among his colleagues. I think it's safe to say that physicists don't really respond well to that kind of publicity-seeking ploy. Especially those who are on the hunt for a major scientific discovery. When they have proven it to themselves and to their colleagues every way to Sunday, THEN they might enjoy a little press. But until then, the less attention, the better.

But as I cut together the third act of our film, I'm focusing in part on education and PR. Does science do a good job of making its own case? We are lucky enough to have footage from a 1979 episode of The Donahue Show (remember that?) featuring a younger-looking Leon Lederman. At one point, an audience member asks Dr. Lederman "does the government pay for your lab?" and he quickly says yes, they pay for all of it. Your government. He states the lab's budget (at that time) of $100 million and reminds the slightly shocked audience that $100 million buys about one jet airplane for the defense department. And Donahue (he's a lot smarter than I remember) says "yeah, but you can put the fighter plane in a movie. You know what I mean? Go, America, let's go and win." And then, looking pointedly at Dr. Lederman, he says, "your work is hard to sell, you know that?"

That's the kicker. This work IS hard to sell. Even for us. We're prepping for a big market in New York, the IFP Market, at which we'll have a series of 10-15 minute meetings with film and TV executives from Miramax to HBO to "pitch" our film. A woman from The Discovery Channel told us "it's like speed dating." Our trouble? As soon as we even mention the word "science," nearly all of them snap their notebooks shut and say "thank you. Have you considered 'Nova?'"

Mr. Overbye's colleague, Natalie Angier, gave us her stark assessment of the situation: "Kids get turned off of science so early," she told us. "The separation starts as early as fourth grade. And once you get off that track it's very hard to get back on to it. And, so, people become scared of science, they don't want to think about it. They think they can't think about it. It isn't seen as part of the fabric of society."

It's true. You can't believe how many people's eyes glaze over if they hear the word "Science."

But if you start describing the fact that physicists in Illinois are in a race with physicists in Geneva to find a tiny subatomic particle that gives everything mass, they start to get interested. They'll even get interested when you start describing that a particle accelerator is a four-mile tunnel underneath the prairie where they smash particles together at nearly the speed of light. Their ears perk up when you say that the machine is called The Tevatron and is 40 years old and destined for the scrap heap because of budget cuts, and it's trying to chug out one last gasp of a discovery before it's plug is pulled and the shiny new Goliath opens across the ocean. Before you know it you're talking about protons and anti-protons and they're taking it all in. Why? How? Because you're telling a story, and you didn't mention the "S" word.

Like Ms. Angier told us: "People like a good story. People love a good narrative. And if you could pitch it like that..."

The truth is, I don't blame Leon Lederman for agreeing to "The God Particle." In fact, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he wasn't much more enthusiastic about it than he claims to be. The average person walking by a bookshelf probably wouldn't pick up a book called "The Higgs boson." But Dr. Lederman says he still gets about 500 sales per month of "The God Particle."

Two of his sales were to me and Monica, my co-director. And if I have my way, our film will be sold to the Weinstein Brothers and will open in theatres across the country, and the amount of people who know what the Higgs boson is will increase by a factor of about a million. And increased public awareness of what high-energy particle physicists are doing can only be a good thing for all those eye-rolling colleagues of Dr. Lederman.

So, to refer again to Mr. Overbye, maybe "The God Particle" was more public relations genius than disaster after all. Now we'll just have to see how "The Atom Smashers" plays out when we pitch our story...