Saturday, January 2, 2010

This time it's for real

Sorry to those of you that I directed to the tumblr blog. That didn't work out so well. So, here at last, is the REAL new blog. Come visit As my last post indicated, we're deep in production (now actually nearing the end) in our second film, called The Experiment, we've got a new office, and we're moving forward on a new film Fermilab has hired us to make to promote parts of their enormous facility not involved with the search for the Higgs boson. Really cool stuff like a dark energy camera, neutrino oscillations, and the mysterious "Project X."

So, with all that going on, The Atom Smashers and this blog has taken something of a back seat. And I was sitting here thinking of how to address this, I suddenly realized it would make perfect sense to close the book on this blog and open another --- not just based on The Experiment, but about everything: our new film, the Fermilab project, The Atom Smashers' continued success, developments in the sciences, documentary filmmaking, teaching young filmmakers, co-running a non-profit arts group with an interesting cast of characters, a little bit of politics, a good chunk of media, and some random thoughts... everything.

I think you'll like it. So bookmark it and I'll see you over there!



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.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Change and Progress

When we had our panel discussion following the screening of The Atom Smashers at the Museum of Science and Industry, John Conway talked about the cautious optimism they were feeling about Barack Obama. So far, I can only imagine John and others are pinching themselves to make sure they're not dreaming. First of all, he has answered lots and lots of science questions, and many of them substantially. "This is the first time we know of that a candidate for president has laid out his science policy before the election at this level of detail," says Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate2008, as quoted in this Wired article. Otto goes on to say that he "thought they were very substantive for this point in the campaign, and surprisingly detailed."

And John mentioned one thing in particular: Obama clearly stated that his administration "will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade."

Doubling is good!

But just as important as many of those detailed answers about policy, and perhaps moreso, are some statements that indicate the huge ideological shift that will take place. Consider the fact that he believes the restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research "have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations."

And this: "I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees."

And this, said just yesterday: "my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

When did he say this? During the announcement that he was appointing Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, as the Secretary of Energy. And, yes, the Department of Energy is the funding agency for ... Fermilab. And Fermilab is happy... here's what Pierre Odonne, head of Fermilab (and someone we interviewed twice) has to say about it:

President-elect Obama’s nomination of Steve Chu to head the Department of Energy is an exciting prospect for us within the community of DOE national laboratories. For the first time in the history of the DOE, a distinguished physicist has been nominated to take the helm. Steve Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics and is currently the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is passionate about science. Even while serving as laboratory director he has kept a very active research program with students and post-docs, inquiring into fundamental processes in cell biology using new molecular and atomic techniques. One has to go back 50 years to the DOE’s grandparent agency, the Atomic Energy Commission and the leadership of Glenn Seaborg to find a scientist of such distinction at the helm.

Talk about change and progress!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Today PBS, tomorrow the world

When I was in Bergen for the Bergen International Film Festival, just as I was finishing my lutefisk, Paul Devlin (a fellow science doc filmmaker who has made a very successful film called "Blast") mentioned to me that there were some international distributors at the next table. I had a good conversation with one of them and attended a panel discussion where she was speaking, and learned quite a bit about getting a film ready for international distribution. Truth is, we had thought vaguely about it, but didn't really put a whole lot of thought into it.

Things I learned:

1. International outlets rarely want anything over 1 hour. Most American filmmakers aim for the feature, and the first hard hurdle is the realization that they're going to have to cut their baby to fit a 54-ish minute time slot. Luckily for us, we already jumped this hurdle and had our 53:30 cut ready to go.

2. There are many countries who do not subtitle foreign films. They dub them. Yes, that's right. Cultural issues, literacy issues, lot of different things mean you have to prepare your film to be dubbed into many different languages. How do you do this? You have to prepare what's called an M & E track (music and effects). This means you need to have your sound mixer work some magic on the edit: all the dialogue has to be pulled, but background sounds, music, sound effects, and everything else has to be left in. It makes me really curious to know how the dubbing is done. Do they hire a team of actors to play the different parts? Or do they just have one man and one woman who do it all? Do they just read the text, or do they... act?

A strange example of the expectations of dubbing can be found in the incredible film "I Am Cuba," which isn't exactly a documentary (but has been called a "poetic documentary"). This is a Russian film made in 1964, celebrating the communist revolution in Cuba. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but in the versions I've seen is quite a mind-bender in terms of its language: it was shot silent, then overdubbed with Spanish. However, a deep-voiced Russian "narrator" then repeats each line in a sonorous tone, whether the Spanish speaker was a man or a woman. Finally, on top of it all, are English subtitles. Whew.

So, the M&E tracks are placed on the master tape that you deliver. There are 4 sound channels on a master tape: 1 and 2 are for the regular stereo mix (in English) and 3 & 4 are for the M&E tracks. The broadcaster can access whichever they want.

3. For those countries who DO want to use subtitles, you have to also give them a version of the film that has no English text. Well, not actually the full version. On the same broadcast master, after the film ends, you insert blank versions of all the shots from the film that had text on them. These are called "textless elements," and are usually separated by a second or two of black. That way some lowly broadcast intern in the Czech Republic or Finland or Peru can insert the clean shots and slap their own subtitles on.

For example, our film has quite a few lines of text pointing out this or that fact or development. In addition, every once in a while a date will appear, and certainly everyone who speaks gets a name and ID (incidentally, these last are called "lower thirds"). All of those shots have to be provided at the end of the tape without any text on them.

4. Finally, the last thing to do is to convert your show to the PAL format. We in the US and Canada use NTSC, but in Europe and many places overseas PAL is the standard. What the heck are NTSC and PAL? I won't give you a technical answer (I do that in my classes at Northwestern) but here's the gist of it: imagine if two different cultures had the same idea and worked it to completion independently of each other. The end result would be the same, but the methodology would likely be completely different. That's the way it happened with video. They both work but they are utterly incompatible. Different frame rate, different size, different way color is encoded.

So, after that technical sidebar, back to my story: The woman I spoke with in Bergen took home a dvd and a few days later she indicated her company was interested in the possibility of distributing it internationally. Exciting! But it turns out they wanted a rather radical re-cut, in essence creating an entirely different film. We thanked them but passed.

Not long after, we got an email and a phone call from a Toronto-based company who had seen the film at the Pariscience festival (where it won the Audacity Award!). They were very interested, and in fact interested in moving fast because there was something called the "World Congress of Science Documentary" that they wanted to take our film to. To make a long story short (sorry, too late), we went into high gear and inked an international distribution deal!

So what have I been doing lately? You guessed it: creating M&E tracks and preparing textless elements. Soon I'll be able to send off the file to the post house for them to create the NTSC and PAL masters, and then... who knows? The Atom Smashers might be beaming into households from New Zealand to Iceland. A few days ago the distributor said "we've been inundated with requests for screeners." I like that word, inundated.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How'd you do that shot?

There's a nice thing that can happen when you're making a film, and to some extent you can plan for it, but to a large extent you can't. You can make a great shot, but you can't necessarily imbue that shot with meaning. That has to happen from the rest of the film that surrounds the shot. I've quoted Walter Murch before, and I'll probably do it again, but he said that music in movies should channel the emotions that are already in the scene, not try to install emotion into the scene. It's the same way with a certain shot: it works best if it can channel the emotion (or meaning) that's already present in the film.

Our film is pretty straight-forward in terms of its cinematography. We did have one or two "special effects" shots, one of which I outlined here and here, and the other of which we get asked about fairly often: the rollerblading shot from up above. I wrote about that here.

I teach cinematography (among some other things) at Northwestern University. It's true, we all have day jobs, despite the huge amounts of money that are pouring into our coffers from The Atom Smashers. Ahem. Sorry, I was daydreaming there. In my classes we often look at films and analyze things like color, lighting, camera movement, etc. A lot of times it's fun for us to speculate how a certain shot was achieved. Or a cinematographer will share how something was done in an interview that I assign as a reading.

It's interesting to me that while the cinematographer usually talks about the equipment used, the technical challenges, the film stock and developing procedures, he or she rarely talks about what the shot means, or emotionally how it affects the story (this is not always the case; some cinematographers are very sensitive to this). This kind of reflection usually falls to the director, although for the most part directors in interviews don't like to talk too much about the cinematography, preferring instead to talk about the actors and the story (which is how it ought to be).

So, this does leave a bit of a gap, and I've found that usually only viewers and reviewers are the ones willing and eager to talk about what certain shots actually mean and how they impact us emotionally and metaphorically, and how they fit into the process of telling the story. Only in the genre of documentary (and, specifically, very low-budget documentary) do you find the somewhat unique and clunky combination of "director/cinematographer."

Sometimes, though not as much as I would hope, there are moments when those two pursuits intersect in a way that allows for one person to be thinking of the story and about getting a nice shot at the same time, and an interesting moment will get caught on camera; a moment of reflection that can serve to gather much of the rest of the film up and shine some thought into it, perhaps a new or extended meaning.

We've gotten enough comments about Ben's rollerblading sequence to make me think perhaps this may have happened in our film. Hi Kooky, a regular commenter on this blog with her own great blog, wrote a nice email to me and called that rollerblading sequence a "transforming moment." Our film was barely underway when we shot that sequence, so there was really no way to know if it would even make it into the final product or not. But a strange combination of the complexity of the search as reflected in Kate Simko's music, Ben's optimism, his musing about how funny it is to need something so big to see something so small, and then that nice shot that Stefani Foster nailed on the first take where Ben keeps getting smaller and smaller and the ring gets bigger and bigger --- a perspective shift happens. Maybe it is a transforming moment in that way.

Or maybe it's just a neat shot. It's hard to tell. I do remember thinking, I'll have to admit, when Stef finished the tilt up and zoom out from Ben on the rollerblades, "wow, it's fun to make documentaries."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Audience Award

Hey --- if you're so inclined, vote for The Atom Smashers for the PBS Audience Award!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

CERN in the news

This article by Dennis Overbye of The New York Times gives an update on when the LHC is going to start back up. They say that they could be doing a more limited series of collisions by next August, but won't be up to full power for some time after that. Some say this is an optimistic timeline.

If you saw our film, you remember Ben Kilminster near the end, wearing his Batman T-shirt, re-iterated that Fermilab and Cern were in "kind of a bit of a race" to find the Higgs, and that they needed CERN to "trip a little bit --- stumble."

What ended up happening was not just a trip but an all-out head-over-heels tumble. A quick recap: in order to get the protons to go in a circle instead of in a straight line, CERN (and Fermilab) use gigantic magnets to bend their trajectory. How big are these magnets? Each one weighs ... ten tons. (that long orange thing in the picture is one of them...

in fact, one made at Fermilab and shipped over for use at CERN! See how cooperative they are in their competition?) There are a staggering 1,232 of these magnets. And in order to get them to be really efficient, they cool them way down, to 2 degrees above the temperature of deep space (absolute zero). This makes them "superconducting."

How do they cool them down? With liquid helium, naturally. Really cold stuff.

So, they think an electrical problem caused a spark which punctured the layer of liquid helium, causing it to flood out and expand (when liquid helium under pressure turns into a gas it practically explodes). I'll quote from the article:

The resulting internal pressures shoved some of the magnets off their mounts and crunched the connections between them. The beam pipes that the protons shoot through were also punctured and contaminated with soot. Or as Dr. Gillies said, "It's a mess."

Remember, those magnets weighed 10 tons!

So, they've got a major workload on their hands. As the article says, they have to bring no less that 53 of those 10 ton magnets to the surface (they're 300 feet underground) to inspect them and fix them, and then do tons of checking and evaluating of the whole darn thing.

Good luck, CERN! In the meantime, Ben and company are working away at Fermilab, regretting the difficulties their colleagues in Europe are having (and trying not to rub their hands with glee too much).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cosmos, and thanks, Monica!

Monica, my co-director, is perhaps the best gift-giver I know. She's given me antique movie cameras, and one Christmas after shooting Marcela Carena's tango club, she gave me ... a tango trophy. First place, no less.

I think I mentioned the TV party we had to watch The Atom Smashers at the Caro D'Offay gallery. Caro and Annie Stone built a cardboard "console" for my modern-looking TV and I projected a video fireplace on the wall next to it, so we all felt as though we were watching TV down in the den. All we needed was some shag carpet.

There's a quick scene in the last quarter of the film where the physicists are discussing why they got into physics. Robin is hanging around in John Conway's office, chatting with John's working group and says she got into physics "because of Carl Sagan." It's one of those nice moments where I think, for once, they truly forgot we were there. She said she had a "mickey mouse" physics class in high school, which didn't inspire her, but once she saw "Cosmos," she was hooked.

She wasn't the only one --- Cosmos riveted me as a kid. I'll be honest: I think Cosmos has been quietly swimming in the back of my mind the whole time we've contemplated making science documentaries. It is clearly a product of a different time, and could never be made today, because ... it's ... slow. Beautifully slow, unhurried, measured, calm, thoughtful. Profound, contemplative, awe-inspiring. Mention any of those words to a documentary distributor or sales agent today, and quite likely you're in real trouble. Mention them in conjunction with the word "science" and you'll get the conversational equivalent of a door slammed in your face.

Our documentary is nothing like Cosmos in that we don't have a narrator or an on-screen presence (Carl Sagan), and we're following a story rather than contemplating the universe at large. But I'd like to think we have a small connection. But before I elaborate, back to my story:

So, we're in the gallery getting ready for the TV party. The cardboard console (complete with big cardboard knobs) is being built, and I'm putting the finishing touches on the video fireplace. Monica arrives, followed by Andrew, who is carrying a FedEx package for me and one for monica. They're from PBS, and we open them to find a nice letter and a box of chocolates! Very nice, and a sweet touch. Then Monica gives me a wrapped package which I immediately open, and find ... a hardbound copy of "Cosmos," by Carl Sagan. Written on the front page:

The Atom Smashers 11-25-08
I got into science because of Clayton Brown! Here's hoping our next story is just as much fun!
Onward, Monica

Tonight I opened the book for the first time, and in Sagan's introduction, a passage leaped out at me. It says:

Cosmos is dedicated to the proposition that the public is far more intelligent than it has generally been given credit for, and that the deepest scientific questions on the nature and the origin of the world excite the interests and passions of enormous numbers of people.

If there was ever a motto for my feelings about our group, 137 Films, this is it. These two beliefs make the backbone of our philosophy, and why we had the nutty idea of making a film about one of the most esoteric, hard-to-fathom scientific concepts out there, brazenly assuming both of Sagan's declarations were true!

I feel like there is a lifetime of exciting work ahead.

So, thanks, Carl Sagan, and thanks, Monica!

See why I say she's such a good gift-giver?

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?"