Friday, November 28, 2008

On the air

Here's a great picture snapped by my girlfriend Kristine as Monica and I sat in the very public "showcase studio" at WGN, AM 720, doing an interview with John Williams. It's happening on a couple of different levels: there's the reflection of Michigan avenue, but if you look closely you can see Monica and me behind our microphones. It's literally right on Michigan avenue, so people walk by, peer in at you, make faces, do dances, all while you're trying to keep your head together to give a good definition of what the Higgs boson is. When Kristine pressed against the glass to snap this picture, I dimly understood that someone was taking a picture, but didn't allow myself to look too closely. Consequently, I had no idea it was her.

On quite the opposite spectrum of my single-minded tunnelvision sat John Williams, the DJ / host of the show, who seemed to be wired to a supercomputer in the sky. He carried on a very chatty conversation with us that never stopped during commercial breaks, all the while hearing talkback from a producer over a loudspeaker about the emergency alert system check that was about to happen, how many commercials there would be, what the next guest was, and how many seconds there were to go until we were back on the air. Not only that, but people were strolling through the studio, people on Michigan avenue were tapping on the glass to get his attention, and something seemed to be under repair in the room. Despite all this, he asked some great questions, told us what his idea for what our next film should be (he wanted to find people to give him the formula for true happiness) and waved and made faces for the people outside. When Kristine approached the glass, he actually posed and waved to her without missing a beat in our conversation. When Monica and I left I think we had aged a week in those 20 minutes.

For a slightly more tranquil conversation, Monica and I pre-recorded an interview with Alison Cuddy and producer Joe Deceaux on Chicago Public Radio's "848" morning show. We spoke for about 20 minutes, and they edited it down to about 10. They also did a terrific job of splicing in audio moments from the film to illustrate and enhance the conversation. We were really pleased with it.

And, just like that, our brief but exciting media frenzy is over! The film will air again January 27, so hopefully we'll get another round of attention. More about what comes next in the next post...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Talk Back

If you have thoughts about the film, join (or start) the discussion at PBS!

Another guest post

A post from Mark Oreglia. Thanks, Mark!

This post is from Mark Oreglia, one of the advisors to "The Atom Smashers".

My colleagues and I loved the film -- not because we were in it, but because of how the filmmakers communicated our arcane subject, and how they were able to focus on the human side of our endeavors. My wife said after the screening "this is the first time I really feel I understand what you do!" So much for my ability to communicate to the public.

The film correctly focusses on competition between various experiments. It is important to understand how important and useful this competition is. Most of the time it is not ugly at all, and it serves to drive us to work harder and produce the best science we can. It also makes sure that results are verified.

I was at CERN last week to attend a workshop on the ATLAS detector, one of the LHC experiments. Two months ago the LHC successfully circulated beams for the first time, so the prospect of bringing the experiments online soon has this place jumping. I was crammed into an office built to comfortably accomodate 4; there were currently 7 people. This is a phenomenon well known to CERN users in the LHC era -- after all, there are nearly 4000 personnel signed on to the 2 main experiments.

Excellent glimpses into life at CERN (at least from the perspective of young people) can be found at here.

Guest post

John Conway writes a guest post. Thanks, John!

When I was first contacted by Clayton and Monica, and invited them out to Fermilab to begin shooting their film, I had in mind at it would be typical science documentary: a sort of voice-of-God "explanation" of our science, what we do, why it's interesting. I could tell on their first visit to Fermilab, though, that they had bigger things in mind. Once I understood what they were after, I tried to hook them up with as many of the people involved in our great quest as I could, people who I hoped would turn out to be interesting on camera.

I have seen the film three times now, and every time I see it I like it better. It really is a unique approach to what could be a very dry and uninteresting topic. (Of course for us physicists it's anything but dry or uninteresting!) The film really captures the spirit of the hunt for the Higgs boson, the excitement and the frustrations. It delves into our lives, our work, and the state of our field.

Hopefully without giving away how the film ends, I can tell you we still have not found any experimental evidence for the Higgs boson. The Tevatron at Fermilab is running amazingly well, we are recording tons of new data every day, and every bit of data brings us a little bit closer to finally seeing the Higgs boson. Next year, the LHC at CERN will start operating for real. It was supposed to have already happened, but in the first two weeks of commissioning, machine suffered a rather serious setback when a string of magnets was damaged by an electrical malfunction. Will this be the break that the Tevatron needed?

Having studied this question for many years now, I think it will still be very hard for the Tevatron experiments to discover the Higgs boson before the LHC, unless the Higgs boson is of the type predicted, for example, by supersymmetry. (That is in fact what I spend my time looking for!) If nature we were that kind, we definitely have a chance to see that at the Tevatron, and as the film shows, we thought we almost had. But hey, you never know...

And what about funding for our field? Happily, we have elected a new president who has promised to try to double the funding for science in the next decade. That would be fantastic except for one quote from the film which keeps coming back to haunt me: it's when Bush's science advisor Jack Marburger intimates that he doesn't foresee funding for high energy physics increasing anytime in the near future. So, it could be that though the rest of science, other fields of physics, enjoy 5-10% increases every year, high-energy physics may not. Time will tell, but I think that we need a major discovery in their field one way or another before our funding levels will increase significantly.

On the home front, as noted at the end of the film, Robin and I (well Robin mostly) had a baby boy in June! Our four month old has made three trips to every lab and one trip to Mexico already, and we are going to Taiwan in December! Yes, his passport photo is very cute. He does take a lot of our time and energy, and we are certain he will be a physicist someday; what other choice could there be?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Passing around the hat...

Andrew, our producer, has been hard at work and has put together a great page where you can buy a copy of the film (and, as long as you've got your credit card out, you can donate to our cause to keep the films coming!)

"Can't your budget be diverted?"

We've just gotten a nice write-up in an online publication called "Worldchanging," which operates under the idea that many of the solutions to building a better future are all around us, but just need to be connected. "Informed by that premise," the magazine states, "we do our best to bring you the most important and innovative new tools, models, and ideas for building a bright green future." The writer, Julia Levitt, attended the screening at Vancouver.

The article focuses on one of the issues in the film that appears regularly in our Q & A sessions, and that we expound on in the film at some length: is this worth doing? What's the point of it? Should we care if we find the Higgs boson?

If you haven't seen the film yet, there is a section near the end from a 1979 Donahue show (remember Donahue?) that features Leon Lederman as the guest. Dr. Lederman is featured throughout our film, and is currently nearly as vibrant as he was 30 years ago when he appeared on Donahue. This segment is only a few seconds long, and shows a woman in the crowd standing up to ask a question.

"Hi," she says, "I guess my question is relatively simple. All this money, a hundred million dollars, is that what you said?"

She's referring to an earlier part of the show when Dr. Lederman had mentioned that figure as his lab's budget. There was a visible reaction in the crowd when he stated that figure (remember, this is 1979). Sensing the crowd's unease, he said "does that seem like a lot? Do you know what the military budget is? $100 million buys, I think, one jet airplane." At which point Donahue said "the problem is, you can put the jet airplane in a movie." There's some nervous laughter in the crowd, much of it confused, but Donahue follows up by sharpening the point: "You know what I mean? Then we can all cheer and say 'go, America, and win.'" Then, looking right at Dr. Lederman, he says very directly: "Your work is hard to sell, you know that?"

This point is now being illustrated in no uncertain terms. Donahue quickly answers her question:

"A hundred million. That's just his budget. There are others ---"
"That's just his budget," she says, looking back at Lederman. "Why can't that money be diverted? I feel that cancer research, and other kinds of research are really more important than finding out, you know, just how many quarks make up this world!"

Lederman is watching her with an unreadable expression as she speaks. Behind him is a chalkboard on which he has drawn a rushed diagram of a proton, and finished a (not particularly good) explanation of how a proton is held together. I suspect he is listening to something he has heard a thousand times and has answered hundreds of different ways. Maybe he's thinking he'll never find a way to convince this woman, the audience, or the other people who have expressed similar sentiments, that what he and his colleagues do is worthwhile. Maybe he's thinking that it's not fair to put cancer research and particle physics next to each other on some kind of scale to find out which is more valuable. Or maybe he's thinking it is fair, and doesn't know how to respond. Or maybe he's just tired of talking about it.

in some of the Q&A sessions we've had after the film, the question has come up. So far not in the way that Lederman experienced, but rather from pro-science people wondering how scientists answer this question. We've been asked more than once why we didn't include more information about the ancillary benefits that this type of science generates (after all, CERN invented the world wide web).

The way I respond is to say that our film, while obviously pro-science, is not a science advocacy film. We're not out to prove to you, the viewer, why this kind of science is worth doing. We could trot out a list of all the ways consumer technology or communications technology or even health sciences have benefited from the work people like Dr. Lederman or the other physicists in our film have done. What's far more important, in our minds, is to raise the question. We don't set about answering the question; that's something we feel only the individual viewer can do.

The research that the physicists do in our film as they search for the Higgs boson is called "curiosity-driven" science, or, more simply, pure research. It's knowledge for the sake of understanding. As John Conway says, this is something humans have been doing for 3500 years. That, and that alone, is the way to measure it's worth. And this is exactly where it snags in the fabric of everyday human activity, especially when things seem to be in turmoil. "What good does it do me? Can it cure cancer? Will it make my cell phone better?" To argue that point is, I think, to miss the point. Sure, it might do those things. But more importantly, it has to stand on its own. And many people might find themselves nodding in agreement with the woman from 1979 in the audience of the Donahue show, clearly uninterested in how many quarks make up this world.

In an example of the pleasures I get out of the process of editing, the very next thing you see in the film after the woman from Donahue makes her immanently reasonable statement is Natalie Angier, a science writer from The New York Times. You hear my voice in the background asking "Should we care if the Higgs boson is found?" What follows is one of my favorite moments in the film. Natalie laughs a little, then pauses for a full ten seconds as she tries to figure out how to answer the question. Ten seconds of silence is a long time these days.

Julia's article in Worldchanging addresses this notion. Her first line reads "Is there value in knowledge for the sake of knowledge?" In one of the comments posted at the end of the article, a reader called "sabik" writes

Of course, the problem is how to judge something that won't have a practical application for decades or even centuries. It's a question of what sort of intellectual landscape we are leaving for our children and grand-children - whether it's rich and varied, pregnant with discoveries to be made, or impoverished and bare.

I think this is nicely said. I'll mention something else along these lines that I may have referenced before somewhere in this blog, that addresses head-on the question of the intrinsic worth of "curiosity-driven" science, or pure research. When Robert Wilson (founder of Fermilab) was in congress arguing for the funds that would allow Fermilab to be built, a senator repeatedly asked how Fermilab would contribute to the defense of the country. Finally, exasperated, Wilson said "It will not contribute to the defense of the country. But it will make the country worth defending."

That's Robert Wilson's answer to the question. I wonder if that would have been enough for the woman in the audience?


Just got the word that John Conway, one of the physicists in our film, was just today made a Fellow of the American Physical Society! His citation states he's received this honor "for outstanding contributions in the search for the Higgs boson and physics beyond the Standard Model."

All this on the same day he officially becomes a movie star (OK, a TV star, anyway).

Congratulations, John!

Lotsa press

Monica, my co-director, is originally a playwright. She's had quite a bit of success in the world of theatre. Being a fiction filmmaker myself as well as a documentary filmmaker, I've had plenty of time interacting with actors, many of whom do double duty in the theatrical environment and on the big screen. I learned something interesting about how the role of a theatrical director differs from that of a film director when I saw a play with one of my favorite actors. She pointed out to me something that was clearly going wrong on stage that night: one actor was badly overshadowing another. I whispered something along the lines of "I guess the director is going to have some work to do tonight." She told me, in fact, nope, the director was done. When the curtain rises on opening night, the play, and the actors, are on their own. Hopefully, it's got legs to walk on.

That's a little how Monica, Andrew and I feel about our film. We've set it out there, and it's walking around on its own. We're watching, a little nervously, how it's making its way in the world. We've been gratified to see some positive indications so far: an review on MSNBC says the film "packs a lot of real life into its saga about the world's biggest subatomic quest." A review in Seed magazine says the film "splits open the US's problematic relationship with scientific research... a roller-coaster ride of near breakthroughs, complex research, and dashed hopes." And a review on "Popmatters" does a nice job of communicating many of the themes we were after.

But perhaps my favorite endorsement of the film comes from someone who hasn't seen it yet: a physicist who must have been hearing about it from his peers or reading about it. He even linked to this blog, which was nice. On his own blog, he describes some of the trouble the LHC is having after its major breakdown a couple of month ago. He then wraps up the post by stating

On a more cheerful note, tonight PBS will be broadcasting a documentary about the search for the Higgs at Fermilab called The Atom Smashers. It looks like this program should be about 10^(10^5) times better than a recent one featuring theorists. One of the filmmakers has a blog here. With the LHC out of commission for a while, the Higgs search at the Tevatron is where the action is, and the experimenters there may be the ones to find the Higgs or rule it out.

Now, 10^(10^5) would be 1,000,000, if I'm not mistaken. I've never seen the other film he's referencing, but I certainly can't guarantee that our film is a million times better than that one. But it's nice that a physicist has such high hopes!

[editor's note: I've just been gently corrected. I was, in fact, mistaken, and Mr. Woit of the aforementioned blog is confident that our film is not just a million times better, but rather ... ahem, 10 quadrupa-gazillion times better. In other words, a 10 with one hundred-thousand zeroes after it. The pressure is on!!]

Like the theatre director, though, all I can do at this point is sit back and watch...

(And watch I will --- it's on tonight, Nov. 25, at 10:30 on most PBS stations. But check your local listings.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sharing a microphone and where ideas come from

Monica and I have been lucky enough to attend quite a few screenings of The Atom Smashers, and we've usually been able to stand at the front of the theatre, sharing a microphone, answering questions from the people in the audience after the film ends. It's really fun, actually. For the same reason that proud parents never tire talking about how smart their babies are, we could probably talk forever about our film.

There is a consistency in the questions we're asked, whether in Chicago, Vancouver, or Norway. One of the first to come up is "where did you find this topic?" Often the way the question is asked implies "where in the world did you find this topic?" Or even "what on earth were you thinking?"

It seems to be a predictable pattern: the general public is astonished to find that a) scientists are people not that different from everyone else, and b) that their lives involve exciting stories. It reveals the extent of the disconnect many people seem to have regarding science, and as New York Times science writer Natalie Angier says in our film, it's a disconnect that starts as "early as the fourth grade" and once people get off that track, it's very hard to get back on.

I answer the question by mentioning the newspaper article I read in the Chicago Tribune in 2000 (a link to which I would post here but the Tribune makes you pay for archived articles --- boo) in which science writer Ronald Kotulak beautifully and dramatically set up the scenario that eventually became our film.

It seems a little odd to give so simple an answer: "I read a newspaper article about it" --- but in truth I think that's how the best ideas strike. An idea in one medium presents itself for adaptation into another. When teaching a class at Northwestern to sophomore film students, I discuss where story ideas come from and give another example of just such an adaptive transformation: I remember a day quite clearly in 2003 when I was driving in Kansas City, listening to NPR, and heard a story about how NASA was going to deliberately crash the Galileo space probe into Jupiter so that it would not accidentally hit Europa, one of Jupiter's moons that is potentially harboring life. I nearly crashed my car into a signpost. What a bizarre moment, I thought, and immediately imagined a scene where the scientists sat around a high-energy radio speaker, listening for the last whistling signal before it stuttered to a stop. What would they say to each other? What would they be feeling like?

This time, rather than a documentary, I decided to write a short film script with that little scene at its heart --- not with scientists, but rather with a couple of ... well, science-lovers. I asked Andrew Suprenant, the producer of The Atom Smashers, to produce it, and the script won the Chicago IFP Production fund, which meant we were able to make the film with donated goods and services from cameras to film to editing and the whole shebang. The title? Galileo's Grave. It's nearly done, but got moved to the back burner behind The Atom Smashers.

Maybe it's just that I have a soft spot for where pathos intersects with the scientific method, but I believe the world of science is teeming with great stories. I think that's good news for us at 137 Films, because that's what we focus on.

And yes, when we premiered Galileo's Grave in Chicago, I stood up with Andrew, sharing a microphone, for the Q&A session. The first question? "Where did you get this idea?"

Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, and Blogs

On Thanksgiving four years ago, my dad asked "what's a blog?" At that time I told him it was essentially a diary written by someone for everyone to read. Clearly I didn't really understand the concept. "Who would want to read something like that?" my dad asked. I shrugged.

In my defense, that was largely before blogs became so specialized and so popular, and before I started writing this one.

I had no idea that there were science blogs. Two of them are notable enough that I think I'll add them as the first two blogs to my sidebar. The first is Cosmic Variance, a biggie, to which John Conway (one of our scientists) is a contributor, and which seems to have been absorbed by Discover Magazine. John wrote about our film here and here, and it was in this blog that he posted about the "bump" in the data that caused such a stir in the scientific world and became a major plot point in our film. John is going to make an appearance in the next couple of days as a guest contributor to this blog.

The other blog is Peculiar Velocity, which I'll write about next time...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

TV Party

We're gearing up for the broadcast on Tuesday night! Check your local listings here. It should be on most PBS stations at 10:30pm. We've decided to get together at our friend Caro D'Offay's gallery and watch it on an old-fashioned rabbit-ear TV.

If you haven't visited our PBS website, go check it out...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

BIFF part three: Lutefisk and used car salesmen

I found out the hard way that we had been mis-informed. Our film was actually not in competition. How did I find this out? In one of our nightly dinners I found myself sitting next to one of the documentary competition judges. I was paralyzed between trying to make a nervous joke about our film to see if she reacted enthusiastically and saying nothing in order to maintain a sense of fairness. I said something to the person on the other side of me that I thought it was odd that they would ask the filmmakers and the judges to the same dinner. The person hissed "you should talk to her!"

At film festivals you see a real struggle play out on the faces of nearly everyone around you. You can tell immediately who is a filmmaker because he or she is wearing an anxious expression; a combination of weariness, determination, and desperation. Why is this the case? Because this person, usually a soul-searching obsessive type perfectly happy when wrestling with the larger themes of what makes us human, is suddenly thrust into the role of used car salesman.

All filmmakers at festivals feel the sickening urge that they need to be "doing something" with their film: trying to make a connection, pass off a post-card, drum up attendance, meet a sales rep, get a lead on Australian distribution, meet a programmer for the next festival, find a potential investor. You can see the conflict play out on their faces, and I'm no exception. So, shamefully, when the filmmaker next to me prodded me to talk to the judge, I turned and waited for a pause in the conversation and said something along the lines of

"So, do you see all the films in advance?"
"Oh. I'm Clayton Brown. I'm the co-director of The Atom Smashers."
Pregnant pause as she sipped some wine.
"Oh. Is that here at the festival?"

Needless to say, I was slightly flummoxed.
"Y - yes," I said. "It's a documentary. It's in competition."
"Oh, no, I don't think so," she said firmly. "I would have seen it."

And that was that. She turned back to her wine and I turned back to my reindeer. The filmmaker on the other side of me shrugged.

Interestingly, two days later, this judge became quite friendly to me. I'm not sure why, but at that night's dinner she came right up to me and we hung out the rest of the evening together. She decided in no uncertain terms that I was going to have lutefisk.

What is lutefisk? It's a bit hard to describe. Check out this link for a full explanation, but I'll give you a brief rundown: it's rotting fish that's been soaked in lye.

That's right; lye. After soaking in various solutions of water and lye for over a week, the fish has a jelly-like consistency and is caustic. Only more soaking in water will render it non-poisonous. Doing this step incorrectly will turn the fish into soap. I'm not kidding. Even when done correctly, you can't use your good dinnerware because lutefisk will permanently ruin silver.

It's served with a couple of potatoes and a small pot of bacon. You dribble the bacon over the jelly-like fish which gives it some semblance of flavor.

Interestingly, some of the younger Norwegians at our table had never had lutefisk and stubbornly refused to even try it (I should have taken this as a warning. Actually I did, but the judge with me would have none of it. She ordered for me, and the waitress had an odd expression upon leaving. I asked about this and the judge told me that she had indicated exactly what sequence everything should arrive in. "I think she thinks I'm bossy," she said. "I think you're bossy," I told her.) They said "this fish is poison. It's made of caustic chemicals. It has lye. It's not meant for human consumption!"

So, I'll be honest, it was not my favorite. I was grateful for the bacon, at least, and the plain potato. At least I earned the respect of the judge.

In some ways I was not as disappointed as I thought I would be when I found we weren't in competition. It took a little of the pressure off. This is perhaps why I enjoyed the second screening of the film much more. It wasn't quite sold out, but the crowd was much livelier. Earlier in the week I had had a couple of conversations with other filmmakers, including Pietra Bretkelly, who had a great film at the festival called The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins. She was talking after one of her screenings and said "I think I shocked the audience with my film. No one said a word at the Q&A afterwards." Turns out many of us had the same experience, and when we asked the festival organizers, they said "oh, yeah. Norwegians are shy. It takes them a while to ask questions."

But luckily, the shy Norwegians had apparently gotten up their collective nerve because there was a lengthy and spirited Q&A session after the second screening.

Oh, one more thing: after eating the Lutefisk, one of the other filmmakers came around and said "hey, I heard you were looking for European distribution. There are a couple of sales reps over there at the next table." So I had to put on my used-car salesman face and head over there. Turns out one of them was interested in the film, and after I got back to the states said she wanted another copy...

BIFF part two: Lidenskapen, Reindeer, and James Caan

Apologies for the delay!

So, as promised: first, a report on the screenings. The first one was sold out, which was a real surprise. A pleasant surprise, to be sure, but somehow unexpected. A sold out screening in Vancouver is one thing, being neighbors with the US. But Norway? I think it pays tribute to our poster image, the nice blurb in the festival program, and, frankly, the Obama-fascination that is apparently all around the world. However, I would also like to think that it means we've got a good film on our hands.

Interestingly, after the film, there was hardly a Q&A at all. The full-house crowd sat, quiet as a mouse, with only one or two questions being asked. Afterwards one of the (incredibly nice) festival staff who was leading the session sheepishly apologized and said next time hopefully there would be some better questions.

While the film was screening, I was actually doing a panel discussion with two other documentary filmmakers for the BIFF TV website. I think most of what I said ended up on the cutting room floor. (There could be a long post here about what it's like to be on the other side of the camera, being asked questions, what it's like to wonder if what you're saying is interesting, but... maybe another time). By the way, "Lidenskapen" means "passion."

So, on to the other part of what I promised next time: an interesting dinner companion.

When your film gets accepted to a (larger) festival, there's a chance they'll fly you out, put you up at a nice hotel, and take you out to dinner every night. Boy, it's nice. I'd recommend you all start making films in order to experience this part of it. It's a little bit of payback for the 40,000 hours spent lugging equipment, pulling your hair out wondering if you've got a story, and working the kinks out of your mouse-clicking arm. Anyway, the second night, I found myself eating Reindeer again, sitting next to a man with a rather loud, low, gravelly voice. He seemed a little tipsy. He was telling stories in English, Norwegian, and a couple of other languages. I was talking to some other people at the table and hadn't really listened too much, especially since I couldn't understand most of it.

It came up that I was a teacher of film production, and so we started talking about films (what a surprise). Somehow the notion of the Dogme 95 movement came up, and how one of the leaders of that group (Thomas Vinterberg) had a new film that was here at the festival. I said that even though I thought some of the ideas behind it were great, there was really only one of those films that I liked, which was The Celebration. The guy I was talking to reminded me that Vinterberg was the director, and his film was here. He also casually pointed at the guy next to me, the one telling stories in Norwegian, and said. "He was in The Celebration." I blinked. "Really?" "Yeah. Remember the loudmouth brother? That was him." His name is Thomas Bo Larsen and we ended up having a really great conversation about acting and directing, especially after he told me that the best piece of directing he ever got was when Vintenberg told him during the shooting of The Celebration that "in this film, you are playing the role of James Caan in The Godfather." Really, what actor wouldn't nod and say "Ahh. Got it."? It was fun talking about good directing (short, loaded suggestions) and bad directing (long-winded explorations of minutiae), and what actors like and don't like (being part of, and excluded from, the creative process, respectively). At the end of the evening, he volunteered that he would fly himself to Northwestern to talk to my classes. I think he was a little drunk, but I believe he meant it at the time.