Theoretical physicist Marcela Carena is one of the scientists appearing in "The
Atom Smashers," a behind-the-scenes look at Fermilab's hunt for the Higgs boson.
Can the movies turn real-life physicists into stars? "The Atom Smashers," airing Tuesday on PBS, packs a lot of real life into its saga about the world's biggest subatomic quest - plus a bit of movie magic.
The documentary, which has been making the film-festival rounds for weeks, focuses on the years-long effort at Fermilab's Tevatron particle collider to find the Higgs boson - a.k.a. the "God Particle" - and other exotic subatomic phenomena.
The quest is in its latter days at Fermilab in Illinois, and Europe's Large Hadron Collider is due to begin the quest next year - that is, after scientists spend a winter of discontent repairing the damage done shortly after the LHC's startup.
The LHC looms as an off-stage character throughout the film - in fact, one scene shows a digital countdown clock at Fermilab, ticking down toward the LHC's scheduled turn-on. Will America's Fermilab find the Higgs before Europe's collider enters the chase? Will shrinking budgets in Washington cut Fermilab's run short?
These are a couple of the themes driving the plot along in "The Atom Smashers." But the real drama comes from the scientists whose personal stories surface in the film, including:
- Ben Kilminster, the spiky-haired rock singer and physicist who is just at the beginning of his career (as a physicist, that is, not a rock star).
- Marcela Carena, the accomplished, Argentine-born theoretical physicist who hsa found a way to balance family and physics at Fermilab.
- Leon Lederman, the Nobel-winning sage who literally wrote the book on the God Particle. (The film includes a time-warp pairing of contemporary interview footage with Lederman's appearance on the "Donahue" talk show almost 30 years ago.)
- John Conway and Robin Erbacher, husband-and-wife physicists at the University of California at Davis who have to juggle a sometimes-long-distance relationship as well as the hopes and disappointments of discovery.
The film's directors, Clayton Brown and Monica Ross, said they tried to shoot a different kind of science documentary, in which the scientists were true-to-life characters instead of mere talking heads.
"The scientists express their fears and their hopes, which is something you rarely see scientists do," Brown explained. "We rarely see them frustrated or disappointed, or wonder whether this is the time to have a kid."
Conway and Erbacher, as a matter of fact, did end up having a kid: Ian Robert Conway Erbacher, born June 25. They also became something of a movie sensation, at least after the film's September premiere at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.
"It's certainly the first time I've been asked for my autograph," Conway told me last week in a speakerphone interview.
"Rock star physicist," Erbacher chimed in.
"It's the first time a film has made physics look as cool as we think it is," Conway added.
It's not all coolness, however: While the documentary was being filmed, Conway's research team had their hopes built up by a "bump" in the Tevatron data that might have hinted at a detection of the Higgs boson - only to find that the bump went away when more data came in. The disappointment can be read in Conway's face toward the end of the movie.
Since then, Conway and the rest of the team at the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or CDF, have taken some consolation from what he called a "pretty striking result" that revealed a mysterious excess production of muons. Erbacher, meanwhile, is excited about a bump in her own top-quark data that she said could point to a "heavy quarklike object or something that is completely unexpected."
"It certainly makes continuing to work on the Tevatron exciting while we wait for the LHC," she told me.
Watch PBS' trailer for "The Atom Smashers."
The key to making discoveries with a collider that's not exactly cutting-edge anymore is to make smarter use of the data you get. That's been the prime focus for physicist Ben Kilminster (who still rocks on with his band, the Drug Sniffing Dogs).
"In the last four months or so, we've been able to improve the sensitivity for each of the main Higgs analyses by 15 percent," Kilminster told me today.
"We're basically looking everywhere, looking an all corners, and trying to pull out as many Higgs events as we can," he explained. It's like being able to buy more tickets for a scientific lottery, with detection of the God Particle as the grand prize.
Hedging their bets
The scientists at Fermilab know that it'll only be a couple of years before their operation closes down - giving way to a brand-new lottery at the Large Hadron Collider. To get in on that action, Kilminster as well as Conway and Erbacher have joined the huge international team behind the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the LHC's particle experiments.
"In the movie, there was a lot of us-vs.-them, United States physics vs. European physics," Kilminster observed. "In practice, there are a lot of American physicists on the European experiments, and European physicists on the American experiments."
The LHC's post-startup problems have shown why it's smart to play both sides of the table.
"Many physicists are rethinking how they want to spend the next year or so. ... We have a really good shot at finding the Higgs boson in the next two years or so," Kilminster said - with "we" meaning Fermilab in this case.
Conway agreed that the delay at the LHC could be a "game-changer," if Fermilab's scientists are truly close to finding the Higgs. "I wish I could say we were sitting on something momentous, but I can't," Conway said.
Erbacher compared the Higgs search to investigative journalism: You don't want to publish the big story before you're absolutely sure it's solid, but you don't want to wait too long, either. "The game here is not to get scooped," she said.
Fears over funding
And then there's the tension over whether there'll be enough support from the bean-counters to go out and get that scoop. "The Atom Smashers" chronicles the disappointment that followed the cancellation of Fermilab's BTeV experiment in 2005, and the insecurity over funding persists to this day.
"People are pretty scared," Erbacher said. "We haven't seen it this bad for a long time."
With President-elect Barack Obama coming into office, Conway and Erbacher are hoping that Fermilab will avoid damaging budget cutbacks. As senator, Obama played a role in easing last year's budget cuts in high-energy physics research, in large part because Fermilab is located in the state he represented. And Obama as well as congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have been saying the right things about support for science.
"We're hoping that between the Congress and the administration, they will not let this die," Erbacher said.
"So we have 'the audacity of hope,'" Conway joked.
Riding the roller coaster
Brown and Ross, the directors behind "The Atom Smashers," said one of their goals was to chronicle the ups and downs of a scientist's life.
"For every bit of good news, they get some bad funding news," Ross said. "That sort of roller coaster is their life, and I think that's what's in the film."
The film also touches on the theme of American competitiveness in science and technology - and, of course, it explains the workings of particle colliders and the quirks behind the quarks, using some charming blackboard-style animations. But you don't need to be a science geek to get into the movie. If you can keep up with "The Big Bang Theory," you can keep up with "The Atom Smashers."
"What we strove to do, and what I think we arrived at, was to have the film work with as much or as little of the science as you want," he said. "The science plays a role in the story - even if you don't understand what it is."
"The Atom Smashers," produced by Andrew Suprenant, is airing as part of PBS' "Independent Lens" series. The Symmetry Breaking blog (a Fermilab/SLAC publication) provides its own take on the documentary. For more about the making of the film, check out the 137 Films Web site as well as Clayton Brown's online journal. You can keep tabs on physicist John Conway via the Cosmic Variance blog.