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."