Monday, January 15, 2007

Dusting off the camera...

We're planning on heading down to Fermilab on Wednesday. We're looking to speak with Rob Roser, Ben Kilminster, and Robin Erbacher about 1) the W mass discovery and what it means for the search for the Higgs (and Fermilab's chances of finding it) and 2) the recent budget developments. Our plan is to get them all 3 together, to try to have a more natural conversation and less of an "interview." We're also trying to get a little camera time with Fermilab director Pier Odonne, but so far we haven't heard from him. I'm afraid our last interivew may have rubbed him the wrong way --- we, as we tend to do, went on a little long. It's pretty common for us to say "OK, thank you. This is our last question." And then, 20 minutes later, we finally wrap things up. We're so interested in the conversation and looking for great quotes that we sometimes lose track of the fact that our subjects are REALLY ready to wrap things up. When we last spoke with Pier, that happened, and he said something like "I heard you guys go on and on..." So I'm a little worried that he might not be willing to speak with us for that reason, even though I tried to reassure him in the email asking for the interview. We'll see. He's been speaking to the press right and left about the budget developments, so I can hope that we get even a 5 minute soundbite for him. That's what we need at this point --- something to introduce that "plot" development.

I'll report back after wednesday and let you know how the interviews went and whether Dr. Odonne let us speak with him...

Monday, January 8, 2007

Where are those #$%@ keys??

So, remember from the last post that conversation we had about the supposed hint of the Higgs from a university team in Iowa? Turns out that our folks at Fermilab were about to find some interesting data of their own. On December 14 they "opened the box" on the year's intake of data collected from the Tevatron. All year they work on simulated data so that the work they do doesn't get biased by what's really there. Then, all at once, they reveal the actual data and compare it to what they had been working with.

As I said before, the Higgs exists for a tiny fraction of an instant before decaying into something else. So, while the physicists at Fermilab are searching for the Higgs all the time, sometimes this search takes the shape of a search for something else. In this case, they had been looking for the mass of something called the W-boson, which is "a key parameter of the Standard Model of particles and forces." What this means is that if they can nail down the W-boson's mass, they can get a much better understanding of the mass for the Higgs boson. It's kind of like walking into a dark room nightclub. You know your keys are on the floor somewhere because someone at the party last night told you they kicked them and heard them sliding around. The more ways you can eliminate places you know your keys AREN'T, the quicker you can figure out where they might be. The physicists at Fermilab now have TWO limiters: they already famously found the mass of the top-quark a few years ago, and now the W-boson. It might be the equivalent of stumbling around the room until you suddenly realize half the room is carpeted (keys can't slide on carpet) AND one whole corner is taken up by a huge entertainment system. That only leaves one corner where the keys must be!

Luckily for Fermilab, this plays right into their hand. It turns out that their beloved Tevatron, that beautiful 4-mile accelerator we have spent 3 years getting to know, is suited best for searching the particular range that the Higgs is limited to. It's as if, after eliminating three of the four corners of the room where your keys could be, it turns out that the remaining fourth corner happens to be right under the stage lights! The best place they could possibly be in order to be found. Now all you have to do is flip on those blazing lights and start looking. With a little luck...

This makes the scientists very excited. In fact, Rob Roser wrote back to us and said the enthusiasm is high --- he's sounding suddenly confident they will find the Higgs there in two years! He says it's still a risk, of course, but that the risk is looking better and better, which means people will be willing to "wager" their professional time and energy to keep looking for it at Fermilab. He said they've restructured their group to better search this range, and that "we are now getting the tools in place we need to nail this baby."

They officially published this result today. You can read about it here,but I'll paste in a couple of important comments:

The new W-mass value leads to an estimate for the mass of the yet-undiscovered Higgs boson that is lighter than previously predicted, in principle making observation of this elusive particle more likely by experiments at the Tevatron particle collider at Fermilab. By measuring the W-boson and top-quark masses with ever greater precision, physicists can restrict the allowable mass range of the Higgs boson, the missing keystone of the Standard Model.

"This new precision determination of the W boson mass by CDF is one of the most challenging and most important measurements from the Tevatron," said Associate Director for High Energy Physics at DOE's Office of Science Dr. Robin Staffin. "Together, the W-boson and top-quark masses allow us to triangulate the location of the elusive Higgs boson."

There's a link from that page to some graphics and pictures and some pretty clear explanations, including one that makes it look like instead of limiting the search to one corner of the room, it's more like one single floor tile... very exciting.

Some context: remember, CERN, the huge accelerator in Geneva, is scheduled to come online sometime this year. John Conway has said that while this is true, they'll still have to do tests, probably have a few snafus, a false start or two, some tweaks, adjustments, and THEN get it going. He estimates 2008 or even early 2009 before real, meaningful data can happen. And that's about exactly two years...

More on this next time...

Where are those $#@% funds?

Here's the other side of the equation. While we're hearing of the exciting scientific developments in tracking down the Higgs boson, we're also hearing this:

Congressional Budget Delay Stymies Scientific Research

This article is very disconcerting. A representative quote: “The consequences for American science will be disastrous,” said Michael S. Lubell, a senior official of the American Physical Society, the world’s largest group of physicists. “The message to young scientists and industry leaders, alike, will be, ‘Look outside the U.S. if you want to succeed.’ ”

Essentially what has happened is that multiple spending bills were "left hanging" by the departing Republican majority. Some Republicans didn't want to finish them because by not doing so it doesn't allow certain spending increases to go into effect, and therefore keeps the bottom line down. It's like you're the CEO of a company and you decide to give raises, but when the time comes around you don't actually sign them into effect because you don't want to increase your spending. Apparently the incoming Democrats have stated they are not going to try to finish these bills. Instead, they're just going to keep everything under the current budget until fall.

Remember this post from one year ago? Where I was describing how Rob and Robin were clapping and cheering the new budget for 2007, in which they were to get some additional money? Well, that's the "raise" the CEO just decided not to sign into effect. But it is actually wrong to think of it as a "raise." As the article says, "Last year, Congress passed just 2 of 11 spending bills — for the military and domestic security — and froze all other federal spending at 2006 levels. Factoring in inflation, the budgets translate into reductions of about 3 percent to 4 percent for most fields of science and engineering."

Fermilab is not the only one to be suffering. Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York was severely affected. The article states it was already operating on charitable contributions (!) and might shut down entirely. Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee might have to delay opening for a year. The Stanford Linear Accelerator, research at universities across the US funded by the National Science Foundation, an oceaneanic observatory, a global polar research program, and even missions at NASA would all be affected. John Conway at UCDavis said that they can't even hire graduate students because there is no money for teaching assistantships.

The article specifically points out Fermilab: "Another potential victim is the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, where a four-mile-long collider investigates the building blocks of matter. Its director, Piermaria Oddone, said the laboratory would close for a month as most of the staff of 4,200 are sent home."

Ulp. Closing up shop for a month?? I got on the (email) horn with Rob Roser and John Conway. John said that Pier Odonne, Fermilab's director, vividly spelled out the consequences to Fermilab in a meeting a couple of days ago (again, sometimes I wish we would get some notification of these things... we always seem to hear about them after the fact. But they're much more important to us that we are to them). It might be, of course, that Pier is talking loudly to get lawmakers' attention. Will the lab be shut down? We'll see. Monica and I have been talking about dusting off the old video camera and making another trip down to Fermilab...

Which brings us to the next post...

Where is that $#@% movie??

Yes, yes, we know. We've been working on this film for ... uh, let me see... three years? The first blog entry was July, 2004. So, I guess that makes two and a half years. What gives???!!

Here's the latest. We are a bit behind where we thought we'd be, but mainly this is because our story kept going and going. Our original plan was to film the year in the life of the Tevatron, which would have been the year 2005 (December 2004 through December 2005). But, if you remember, they extended the run past December 2005. Here's a quote from my blog entry, November 2005:

In fact, that's the same reasoning behind Fermilab's recent decision to extend the current run of the Tevatron. Normally, the accelerator gets shut down every November so they can get inside, do repairs, upgrade things, and generally brush out the cobwebs. They keep it offline for about 6 weeks, then fire it back up again. We were present when they achieved the startup (although I looked back and saw that I didn't write an entry about that... might have to write one after the fact) and run it for 10 months. Our film was designed to run for a complete start-up to shut-down cycle -- a year in the life, if you will. But not long ago they determined that the Tevatron was running so well and luminosity was so high that they'd be crazy to shut it down. They moved the maintenance shut down date to March 1 --- we plan to keep shooting until then, although it doesn't tie the bow so neatly to shoot for 15 months instead of one year. On the other hand, this builds a little momentum, especially where Ben is concerned...

So we kept shooting until March 06, but in February the budget got interesting again, and then we got the opportunity to interview Natalie Angier and Dennis Overbye on the east coast ... We finally called a halt to shooting in late summer 06. I was busy at that time also finishing up a fiction film I had shot with Andrew and Stef called Galileo's Grave, and during that time we assembled a team of interns who began working on the post-production preparations. In the fall, Monica and I began having edit meetings, and by late December 06 we had assembled a solid paper edit. And, in fact, Saturday, January 6, 2007, was our first day of official editing. Our schedule is tight: we hope to have a rough cut by March, and a final cut by May (or possibly June). Then we'll take it to the world.

It is difficult though: as evidenced by the two posts you've just read, the story just won't stop. The two crucial legs of our story, the search for the Higgs boson and the state of science funding, keep walking. Now it seems they've stepped it up to a brisk run. The collision here is exactly where our story lies: Fermilab is getting so close to the Higgs they can sniff it, just as the federal budget starts yanking the rug they're standing on. Monica and I are meeting Tuesday to discuss. Can we continue to edit our film while at the same time dashing out to Fermilab to hear about the latest? How much can we cover in title cards at the end of the film? What about an epilogue? Obviously we're not going to wait 2 years to find out whether Fermilab finds the Higgs. We've already drawn the line once --- do we extend it?

Ah, the wonderful challenges of being a documentary filmmaker on a "hot" topic! At least, we think it's hot. Hopefully you do too, or else you wouldn't be reading this...