Monday, November 30, 2009

Am I the only one not excited about this?

So much has been happening over at CERN. Birds dropping baguettes into electronics, theories about saboteurs from the future, and, at last, a successful startup. After years of waiting and anticipating, the thing works. Tons of press, much ballyhooing.

So why haven’t I written about it? (not that anyone is waiting to hear my thoughts, of course). I think I’ve been avoiding it. After following the story for five years on this side of the Atlantic, I must confess a part of me was a little disappointed to see CERN working at last. Why? Because it really does finally start the death clock for my favorite particle accelerator, the quirky, irascible, buffalo-loving, plaid-tie-wearing, held-together-by-baling-wire-and-duct-tape, 40 year-old local curmudgeon that cranked out discovery after discovery: The Tevatron at Fermilab. And anyway, who has the cooler name? The LHC? So boring. The Tevatron! Now that’s what science is supposed to sound like.

The Tevatron. No, not CERN. The TEVATRON.

We, my co-filmmakers Monica Ross and Andrew Suprenant and I, spent a good four years going back and forth from Chicago to Fermilab, getting to know I-88 quite well. We became regulars of a sort, walking in and out of the buildings and labs, waving to physicists and engineers we had come to know, and eating at the Fermilab cafeteria. They were hot on the heels of the Higgs boson. Well, not all the time (you’ll have to watch The Atom Smashers to find out about the roller coaster ride), but suffice it to say that they were neck and neck with CERN for the honors of finding the most sought-after subatomic particle of all time. And just when their big rival, the enormous, expensive, glorious LHC at CERN was set to blow them out of the water, the Europeans had a hiccup (ahem). The Tevatron had a new lease on life! And another year, maybe two, to make a discovery.

But now, the LHC is finally working. Hooray.

I know, the scientists at Fermilab are just as excited that the LHC has started as the scientists in Europe. After all, they will be heading over there soon to start work, if they haven’t already. They love the big new toys. And Fermilab has a lot of game —- many things are going on besides the beat up old Tevatron (as our new Fermilab film will demonstrate!) It’s just —- I really like the Tevatron.

What can I say —- I have a 1969 VW bus. Just about the same age as the ol’ Tevatron. I’d have a hard time getting rid of it, too.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hello again!

Well, it's been a long, long time! Apologies for the delay. We've been incredibly busy on our next film, called The Experiment. As yet, we have to keep it under wraps, because the people involved are quite touchy. I've been itching to write about it, and even to set up a new blog for it, but suffice it to say many of the people talking to us are skittish about speaking in public. They are worried about the wrong kind of publicity, so we have to approach them with some caution. We've been using The Atom Smashers as evidence that we are conscientious filmmakers, and have been honest and direct, and have met with mostly success. However, just the other day, someone we contacted about an interview declined because he only would feel comfortable speaking with "established media outlets." It's been a pretty wild ride --- when we get through with production, I'll start a new blog and direct you to it.

On to other news, though --- we have a new office! We haven't moved in yet, but here are some pictures, courtesy Stef Foster (who shot most of the pretty shots in The Atom Smashers)
It's long and narrow, but works for us... this is Amy (our new assistant editor volunteer), Carole (our new Associate Producer), and me. As you can see, we don't have any furniture yet, except for the tables and some shelves. We'll end up with about three workstations when all is said and done.

This is Peter, our grants / funds coordinator, and Monica (co-director). The writing on the wall was left over from the previous tenants in this space, who were a printing company. They've agreed to make us business cards and letterhead ... for free! Very lucky for us. The building manager has scraped off all the writing by now ... a tedious job.

As part of the deal we have access to a really nice conference room for our board meetings. Here's Monica underneath a cool feature of the building --- the owners have a million dollar + collection of old posters, some of which are 12 feet tall. They're incredible. Makes for a really nice environment. The only problem is this room is a little dark --- there are about 20 small halogen lights and all of them except 2 are burned out. From what we understand, we're the only ones interested in using this space; most of the other tenants have their own conference rooms, so it's likely no one has noticed. I have a feeling they'll fix them once we point it out. There's also a 4th floor outdoor deck with a great view of downtown...

Here's the other end of the board table, with Peter, Andy (one of our board members), and Carole. And finally, Andrew, very excited.

So, despite the fact that this blog has been virtually ignored for a couple of months, we've been extremely busy! Also, we will soon be sending out mailers across the country to high schools, museums, and science labs to try to acquire some screenings. We've got a 15-minute postscript to the film that will bring many of the events up to date, as well as some teaching materials. I'll likely be creating some more posts as that happens.

That's the latest --- look for more soon!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

How many anti-protons does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Reading in my favorite magazine, Scientific American, I saw an inevitable confluence: Star Trek + Fermilab. As I'm sure you know, there's a new star trek movie coming out. Anyone who has ever watched Star Trek knows that they talk a lot about anti-matter. Anti-matter powers the Enterprise's warp drive, as well as provides the oomph behind the "photon torpedoes." Anti-matter is also used at Fermilab: they smash protons and anti-protons together. So Fermilab has an anti-matter factory.

A guy named Lawrence Krauss wrote The Physics of Star Trek, which I have never read, but assumed was a silly book about how everything you see in Star Trek is possible and "some day, you'll be 'beaming' back and forth to the beach on your own personal transporter!'" Scientific American interviewed him about the new movie, and I found him to be refreshingly frank, and apparently brutally honest, most of the time saying variations on "it's an interesting idea, but ain't gonna happen." For example, the above-mentioned confluence:

Of course, it's hard to create antimatter, much less carry it around. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to produce antimatter. If we used the antimatter-making device at Fermilab just outside Chicago, the energy cost would be many thousands of times the gross national product of the U.S. to produce enough antimatter to light up a lightbulb.

That's an expensive lightbulb. Although, the way the economy is heading, China can probably order a few dozen before too long.

PS: information about that incredible image of antimatter can be found here

Friday, April 24, 2009

California here we come

Monica and I are flying out to Davis, CA, over the weekend as the guests of John and Robin (the married physicists in our film). Well, I guess technically we're the guests of the University of California, Davis, which is screening the film. We'll be participating in a panel discussion afterwards. We're really excited! I'll post from the road, including some pix.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ghostly release

As I mentioned before, Kate Simko composed the music for The Atom Smashers. The soundtrack is now available! It's a digital only download, which means that although you can't hold it in your hands, you can get it immediately. Here's a link to the album release, where there's a nice review (including my favorite part where the track 'God Particle' is called a "woozy minimal-house banger").

Also, all the tracks can be previewed online!

In the event you have swallowed a Higgs Boson

Scientists can do the funny, too. Here's what to do if you think you accidentally ate a Higgs. Best lines: "If space and time have inverted within your body, skip to step 10." and "Do you feel protons decaying? Grand Unification may be occurring near your vital organs."

But here's the best found on Abstruse Goose:

Finally, scientists at CERN saying what they really feel: "Run and hide, asshole. We're pissed." The sweaty higgs boson makes my day...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Good budget news, for once

On March 23 Pres Obama started to make good on his commitment to supporting science. It's supporting neutrino science, which has nothing to do with the search for the Higgs boson, but some of it can go towards infrastructure improvements at Fermilab, which got $34.9 million. Fermilab's neighbor, Argonne National Lab, will get $13.1 million.

Remember in our film when John Conway and Robin Erbacher are sitting in a restaurant, talking about the budget cut they just experienced? (If you only saw the PBS version, alas, this scene had to be cut for brevity). They were lamenting the fact that the DOE (under the Bush administration) didn't really seem to support them, either financially, or (strange to say it), spiritually or philosophically. The administration tried to establish performance measures, a kind of business-model approach to science that is fundamentally at odds with the type of big-picture research going on in the search for these kinds of answers. In a strange way, it's as if a CEO approached an artist and said "OK, let's quantify how you go about painting masterpieces. How many masterpiece ideas will you be generating per week? How many brushstrokes per masterpiece? What is your brown-to-red ratio when it comes to creating the mood 'somber'? I'd like to have your answers in an excel spreadsheet by tomorrow morning." The CEO, on a fundamental level, doesn't "get it."

Not that I have anything against CEOs or am implying that they don't understand the more subtle aspects of life. It's just that, in a strange way, I think artists and scientists find themselves in similar situations: in passionate pursuit of something that people with the money they need don't often understand (something my co-director Monica has said for years). On our Netflix page, there are several reviews. We've got a 3.6 star average rating (up from 3.5!), which I'm pretty pleased with. Most of the viewers who took time to write something were pretty positive, but there are some real gripers out there who were not pleased with the film at all. Some of them seemed to react quite negatively to scenes such as the one I described above, where John and Robin were sitting in the restaurant, opening up about their feelings, calling them naive or petty, accusing them of whining and having myopia about the real world. I certainly wouldn't argue with any critics; they are certainly entitled to their perspective. However, I would say that we give scientists precious little space for personal feelings. Much of it undoubtedly has to do with the fact that they are spending lots of public money on things most of us don't understand.

Did you see the movie "Big Night?" It's about a small Italian restaurant in New Jersey run by a couple of brothers. One brother is an exacting chef and the other is the manager. The chef (another iconoclastic misunderstood genius) chafes when clunky regulars come in and ask for a meatball with their spaghetti, or want pasta AND risoto. Whom do you identify with, the chef or the customer? No one likes to be sneered at as a rube. But everyone can relate to the feeling of "they just don't GET it!", whether it be trying to simplify a procedure at work under a dense boss, trying to appeal to a flat-voiced agent at the city auto permit desk, or a kid trying to explain to a shrugging parent why wearing teddy-bear sweaters might have been fine at age 12 but is not an option on the first day of high school.

So, I guess my point here is that finally, finally, Fermilab (and Argonne, and Sandia labs, and Los Alamos, and SLAC, and Brookhaven, and...) can feel like their boss "gets it." They know that meatballs are an American invention. That using email will be faster, better, and cheaper than typing and mailing. That paying for all three tickets NOW instead of coming back three consecutive Tuesdays will be faster and better for everyone. And that, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, even though it's perfectly good, and that years ago parents wore the same sweater five years in a row, and that people in Africa would be thrilled to have a quality sweater like that, spending a few bucks on a new sweater now will pay dividends for years to come in terms of mental health (and those people in Africa can actually get this quality teddy bear sweater ... after it has been donated to the thrift store!)

I can almost feel the pulse rate of scientists across America starting to slow a bit. Relax? Not quite yet. But anyway, shouldn't we let them fret and complain a little like the rest of us? That was a big thrust of our film --- to show that they're just like everyone else. They just use some longer words sometimes. OK, and they're not such good dancers. Well, and maybe their jokes aren't necessarily funny to everyone. And...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

At the Lake County Film Festival

We haven't gone to many film festivals lately, but there was a smallish one about 90 minutes north of us that showed our film, so I went up there on a Friday night to be "film co-director in attendance for Question and Answer session after the screening." There was a crowd of 20 or so who asked thoughtful and engaging questions afterwards.

But during the film, I felt myself growing anxious --- I knew how it would end, which you would think would remove anxiety. But the problem was that I knew the film would end in, essentially, the spring of 2008. A lot has happened since then! We have a new president, a new attitude towards science, and, especially, a roller-coaster ride of developments in the search for the Higgs boson. I was frustrated on one hand, but knew that we had a very precipitous sense of timing about when The Atom Smashers was released. I just found myself in the audience wishing that we were working on a sequel! But that would amount to diving full-time back into filmmaking mode, without a definite plan... something we're not really prepared to do.

However, I'm strongly considering doing a "post-script" of some kind. Getting the camera back out, maybe doing just 2 or 3 interviews and finding a couple of news clips (i.e. President Obama saying he will restore science to its rightful place in government). Not sure what we would do with this, except perhaps ship it along with the DVD. Or, perhaps make it available for downloading online, and include instructions on how to do that with each purchase... hmmm... lots of possibilities...

All I know is that I sat in the audience and sent Monica a text message that read "we DEFINITELY have to follow up --- we've spent too much time and energy on this story not to document the final chapters!"

All kidding aside... go Corolla, go!

Things are starting to get very interesting.

In February a spate of articles started showing up, first starting with the realization that CERN was not going to recover from its near-catastrophic breakdown in the summer as expected, but would need until September. Because it was a later start, the decision was made to keep CERN running through the normally scheduled winter break --- to basically run the thing non-stop for a year to try to make up lost time.

This announcement seems to have started a chain reaction of articles that promoted the idea that CERN's stumble last fall could have dire consequences for the massive particle accelerator. As our film pointed out, Fermilab's Tevatron has been cranking at full capacity for some time now. It's a little like having a $100,000 Porsche on the shoulder with its hood up while a $6,237 Toyota Corolla hums along at 80 mph. Even though the Porsche could blow the Toyota's doors off, if it sits out of the race long enough, guess who will win?

So, first we saw the article I referenced in a previous post, and here's one from the NewScientist, called "Fermilab 'closing in' on the God particle." (It's an interesting exercise in nuance when discussing the concept of competition between the two labs. Pier Oddone is quoted as saying "we're not racing CERN" yet the very next sentence says "Other scientists at Fermilab ... [say] the sense of competition is real." And how's this for spin: "'Indirectly, we're helping them,' says DZero spokesman Dmitri Denisov of his European counterparts. 'They're definitely feeling the heat and working a little harder.'" That's a little like the driver of one race car say he's helping the other race car driver when he guns his engines at him.)

(Incidentally, this racecar analogy is all over the place: In an article called "Fermilab, European accelerator race for glory" in the Chicago Tribune says "The idea Fermilab could pull ahead in the Higgs search seemed about as likely as a Model T beating a Corvette in a drag race." (Further evidence is the fact that this story has been mistakenly filed under the "Sports Archives" section).

But just three days ago the rhetoric in the media stepped up a notch. Monica sent me this article from Newsweek, called "God's Broken Machine" (oh, the drama). The subhead reads "As Europe makes repairs to its shiny new particle accelerator, U.S. rivals prepare to steal the prize," and a later line reads "phyiscists at the world's biggest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, are seeing their dreams of Nobel Prizes go down the drain..." due to Fermilab's "exploiting the lull by staging a last-minute comeback, threatening to leapfrog the Europeans to the prize."

Now, hold on. Aside from the ridiculous idea that Fermilab is staging a comeback, as though they huddled around and decided to suddenly launch an aggressive play, this is sounding typical of media hyperbole. But there's a little more to it:

This week scientists at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, will announce new data that not only narrows the gap between them and the coveted God Particle, but also suggests that the LHC may not be particularly well placed to make the discovery at all. The finding is a public-relations blow to the LHC and tarnishes Europe's newly burnished image as a leader in Big Science.

I asked John Conway what this "new data" was, and if it was related to the press release from Fermilab we were emailed yesterday (yes, it's fun to be on Fermilab's press release list, the same list with the Associated Press, The New York Times, Scientific American, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Discovery, etc.!) that announced Fermilab had discovered a single top quark. Nope, not related. The "new data" is new results from the Higgs search.

Without going into the details of the science that I don't understand, I'll jump back now to the newsweek article to give us an idea of what this new data implies for the search (race) to find the Higgs particle:

The standard model predicts that the Higgs will fall within a range of energies—from 114 giga-electron-volts to 185 GeV. The LHC is, without question, master of the upper portion of that range. Using it to hunt the Higgs at the lower energies, however, would be like shooting quail with a cruise missile. Fermilab's smaller Tevatron collider, it turns out, may be better suited. The Higgs, the new Fermilab data show, does not exist for a portion of the upper range, putting it in the Tevatron's cross hairs and suggesting that the LHC may be more peripheral to the search than previously thought. "We've made their jobs a little bit harder," says Fermilab physicist Dmitry Denisov, "because we've excluded the region they're good at."

Ah. So, in a sense, the Toyota Corolla has just revealed the racetrack doesn't have any straightaways where the Porsche would really have a chance to blow it away. Instead, it's mostly narrow, curving suburban neighborhood streets with children playing and beige houses, perfect for the Corolla.

It gets more complicated here, as there are actually two types of Higgs that might be out there: Standard Model ones like those mentioned in the Newsweek article, and supersymmetry Higgs, which is what John Conway has been looking for. From what I can understand, the Standard Model ones are less likely (perhaps a 50% chance in two years), while the supersymmetry kind are more likely.

I think that's the reason for the range of 50-96% that the BBC article mentions. Whew. No wonder media people (read: me) like to use simplistic analogies like Corvettes and Model-Ts, Davids and Goliaths, and Porsches and Corollas. And why scientists get so frustrated with us.

Go Corolla, go!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Higgs boson found!

It's been found by three gradeschool kids with an accelerator they build in the hallway of their junior high school. Really. It's on the Interwebs, so it has to be true, right? Read all about it. CERN and Fermilab researchers are rumored to be considering "chucking it all in and starting a band."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

50/50 at worst, 96% at best

These are the odds that Fermilab will find the Higgs before CERN. At least, according to Fermilab, as quoted today in this article from BBC News. The subhead of the article reads "Europe's particle physics lab, CERN, is losing ground rapidly in the race to discover the elusive Higgs boson, or "God Particle," its US rival claims."

Later in the article comes this line:

"Project leader Lyn Evans conceded the enforced downtime might cost the European lab one of the biggest prizes in physics."

I've mentioned before that Ben Kilminster, wearing his batman T-shirt, half-jokingly said that Fermilab was in a race with CERN but they needed CERN to "trip a little bit. Stumble." Back when CERN had its breakdown, in the fall of 2008, I don't think anyone expected the ramifications to be quite so huge. Remember, some people say that the entire construction of this new version of CERN was done to find the Higgs. Others will point out that there is much more science that will be done than that one discovery, but no one could deny that the Higgs is a main motivator. So when it became apparent that CERN was out of commission for a full year, I suspect the worrying began. This wasn't CERN tripping a little bit; a stumble. This was turning out to be a headlong sprawl.

As Leon Lederman, John Conway, and others said in our film, the Tevatron is now a finely-tuned, thoroughly tested race car, purring along on eight cylinders, with a pit crew of battle-hardened mechanics standing by who know every nut and bolt by heart. If ever there was a moment for it to take the lead and claim the prize, this is it.

The article states something quite stunning:

"Fermilab estimates that the Tevatron has already picked out about eight collision events which may be hints of the Higgs."

Sounds like there's a potential that by summer this could finally be in the bag... stay tuned for further developments...

Friday, February 6, 2009

New Hampshire Public Radio

And here's a link to a slightly more erudite interview Monica did with New Hampshire Public Radio's Word of Mouth show. They do a really nice job of introducing the story, including playing some clips from the film like they did at our Chicago NPR show (but they get monica's last name wrong. It's the price of fame.)


Here's a link to a rather lengthy interview I did for an online science radio show called Groks Science Radio. At the end of the interview, they asked if I'd like to play a game called Grokatron 5000. This is where they ask a question, generated by their super computer (ahem). The question was "Massive or Insubstantial?" I was asked to rate each of 5 people as being either massive or insubstantial. The five people were: Bill Gates (windows = insubstantial, but philanthropic work = massive). Jerry Springer (again, first half of his life in politics = massive, TV show = insubstantial), Stephen Hawking (massive, of course), Paris Hilton (insubstantial), George Bush (unfortunately massive).

Why? Because the Grokatron asked. I answered.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Quick --- if you're so inclined, go vote for The Atom Smashers audience award on PBS! The opportunity to vote disappears quickly, so hurry!


Tuesday, January 27, 2009


The Atom Smashers is broadcasting again tonight (Tuesday, January 27th) in an encore showing on many PBS stations. We found out from PBS that the film is screening in the Los Angeles area for the first time tonight, as they were in the midst of a pledge drive in November when it originally aired. So, to any west-coasters, welcome! And to everyone, please visit the PBS "Talkback" page to write your thoughts about the film. And please visit here to buy your very own copy (an extended version with 6 extra features), and we'd love to discuss setting up a screening with your school, museum, lab, club, or whatever organization you've got.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Ghostly congratulations

Great news for our esteemed soundtrack composer, Kate Simko (and us, indirectly): The Atom Smashers soundtrack will be released on Ghostly Records! Kate has a great career going as a composer and performer, and I've gotten so many compliments about the soundtrack of the film that I can't forward them all to Kate. I wrote about the collaboration I had with her here and I'm really excited to see this album come out! it represents what I think is the best part about collaborations: two things that are symbiotically created (a movie and the movie's soundtrack) but that have identities and lives beyond and above the relationship between them. OK, I'm not sure how much a life our film would have without its soundtrack, but you get the idea.

I'm not sure when this will be ready for sale (they're still working on details like cover art, etc) but you can be sure I'll post about it and there will be a link to buy it from our website.

[PS - 1/28 I've just heard a preview copy of the CD --- it sounds fantastic. - cb]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Watch it again!

The Atom Smashers will air again on PBS this Tuesday, January 27. This time around it will be at 10PM instead of 10:30, so hopefully some early-risers might have a chance. PBS is not doing anything to promote this screening, since it's basically a freebie (meaning it was a repeat that they didn't expect during the contract negotiations. We prefer to call it an "encore presentation.") For this broadcast, we managed to change a bit of text at the very end to recognize the shutdown of CERN. Check your local listings here.

Since my last post we've had a couple more festivals (one in Greece, one in Belgium) invite the film to screen (not us, just the film, alas), and Monica and I are very excited to be flying out to show the film at UC Davis where John and Robin teach sometime in April.

And here's something I find personally very exciting: it's fun to see our film listed on Netflix! We've got an average rating of 3.5 stars. So far we're not appearing on itunes, but that should happen eventually.

And finally, a funny anecdote, from Robin:

John and I had our first encounter with a "fan" at LAX on the way back from Taipei. We were changing gates to transfer to Sacramento and a guy (early 30s? late 20s?) stopped us and said "Hey! I just saw you in a movie!". Unfortunately he couldn't remember right then what it was, though we didn't give him a moment before we told him it was the Atom Smashers. I'm also not sure whether his star search feelers were out due to being in Los Angeles or something. :)

Anyway, he asked us how things were going with our project and such, then we went on our way.

Thanks, Andrew/Monica/Clayton, for our >15 minutes of fame. *grin*

I wrote back to say that one of my goals in life is to have more physicists signing autographs.