The US Versus God Particles

Entertainment & Media

The Atom Smashers splits open the US's problematic relationship with scientific research.

atom smashers Dr. Marcela Carena, theoretical physicist at Fermilab. Photo: Andrew Suprenant.

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” When documentary filmmaker Clayton Brown comes across something in the world of science that blows his mind, he says, “I feel that sensation that I think Emily Dickinson was talking about.”

Brown, along with writer-director Monica Ross and producer Andrew Suprenant, make movies about science, a field they believe — like poetry — is mind-bending, and rich in beauty, metaphor, and meaning, not to mention overlooked by the culture at large. Their production company, 137 Films, is named after the so-called “fine-structure constant” of quantum electrodynamics (1/137).

The Atom Smashers, the collective’s first feature, premiering this Tuesday, November 25 at 10 pm on PBS, stays true to that mission. The filmmakers go deep beneath the Illinois prairie, into the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where physicists are in a race against time to locate the Higgs boson, aka “the God particle,” a key subatomic unit that is believed to determine mass.

Brown and Ross’s documentary is a roller-coaster ride of near breakthroughs, complex research, and dashed hopes, as the scientists frantically work to come up with substantive data before all eyes turn to Fermilab’s high-powered competitor, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is located at Switzerland’s CERN and, pending no further technical difficulties, scheduled to be up and running in spring 2009.

The Atom Smashers works on multiple levels, but Brown and Ross’s artistic aim was to portray science and scientists as human, accessible, and valuable. “Science relates to our society in one of two ways,” says Brown. “It’s either based in fear — whether atom bombs or robots going crazy — or it’s going to solve all of our problems. Either way, the humanness is removed from it, and the scientists become agents in either evil or utopian schemes.”

The film is antithetical to the standard expository science docs of the high school classroom, lacking an explanatory Voice of God narrator or dry scientific graphs. Instead, Kate Simko’s entrancing techno-score and the film’s simple line-drawn animated sequences give the film a more freewheeling, artsy air.  The film also offers amusing glimpses of Fermilab’s model airplane club, Tango club and, yes, its rock band (“Don’t like the standard I-O. RM minus R-star, yo! ” recites lead singer and hipster particle physicist Ben Kilminster).

Meanwhile, the dedicated, personable experimental physicist John Conway teeters between excitement  — he’s on the verge of a major breakthrough involving a new particle’s mass that could be the Higgs — and the challenges of a tricky domestic life. He’s just married particle physicist Robin Erbacher, and as the pair ponder the future prospects of their family, they are faced with a long commute back and forth between UC Davis and Fermilab and are often forced to keep in touch via web video.

The political subtext of The Atom Smashers, filmed between 2004 and 2006, amidst the Bush administration’s increasingly anti-science agenda, is “America’s weird relationship with science right now, ” as Ross puts it. The shutdown of Fermilab’s 25-year-old Tevatron particle accelerator looms throughout the documentary. With some of Fermilab’s physicists ready to relocate to Switzerland’s CERN, big questions arise about the value of science in the U.S. today and the battle for funding, specifically for an area so abstract to the general public and politicians as particle physics. “We need to make a major discovery, ” Dr. Conway says in the film, “or we won’t be supported by anybody.”

The documentary cleverly reminds us that US scientists have long been ensnared by a questioning public, if not a hostile administration. Footage from a 1979 episode of The Donahue Show, in which audience members confront a young, woolly haired Dr. Leon M. Lederman, Fermilab’s second director, is spliced throughout. One woman asks: “All this money —&thinsp$100 million —&thinspwhy can’t that money be diverted? I feel that cancer research is really more important than finding out how many quarks make this world.” Dr. Lederman, now a physics professor at the University of Chicago, says this type of argument never goes out of style, but “while there are many demands for government support, we can’t pause. If we pause and wait, we’ll lose the science we have.”

Some of the scientists in the film reject the notion that the Tevatron will be rendered obsolete by the LHC, despite the fact that there have been no scientific breakthroughs regarding a Standard Model Higgs boson at Fermilab since 2000. Conway says the Tevatron could actually be complementary to the LHC: “With enough data, we can see light Standard Model Higgs decay to pairs of B quarks, but it’s very difficult to see that at the LHC because there are actually too many background events produced in the collision at the larger machine.” He also warns that shutting the Tevatron down early just to save “a few million dollars” could preclude the experiment’s best results.

When the LHC finally gets up and running, discoveries will come more readily  — but to focus on this fact is to miss the heart of The Atom Smashers, the value of the these scientists’ work, and the massive accomplishments of Fermilab’s particle accelerator. In 1977, it was used to discover the bottom quark; 20 years later, the top quark was located; and just this year, it revealed a new particle made of three quarks, called the Omega-sub-b, which brings scientists a step closer to understanding how quarks form matter.

“Every single time we’ve made a new breakthrough in how we understood how the universe works,” Conway explains, “we’ve been able turn it into new technologies. If there is something like anti-gravity possible or new sources of energy, it will be possible through research like this. This is how we’re unraveling the basic structure of space, time, matter, and energy.”

Originally published November 24, 2008

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