This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Share this

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film

100 Second Science Your scientific questions answered simply by specialists in less than 100 seconds.

Watch now

Bright Recruits

At all stages of your career – whether you're an undergraduate, graduate, researcher or industry professional – can help find the job for you.

Find your perfect job

Physics connect

Are you looking for a supplier? Physics Connect lists thousands of scientific companies, businesses, non-profit organizations, institutions and experts worldwide.

Start your search today


Fermilab on film

Still the frontier? Bison graze at Fermilab. Credit: Fermilab

By Margaret Harris

What does it feel like to work for an organization that — despite its considerable fame and all the talent it has nurtured over the years — is frankly on the verge of being outclassed? This is among the many questions raised by The Atom Smashers, an oddly moving little film about life at Fermilab in the months before its European rival, CERN, switched on the Large Hadron Collider. It’s scheduled to air on American public television stations starting from 25 November as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, with repeats around 27 January; check local listings for specific dates and times.

The documentary focuses on the period between early 2006 and late 2007, and there is plenty of material for filmmakers Clayton Brown, Monica Long Ross and Andrew Suprenant to explore here. Over the course of the film, scientific enthusiasm collides with sharp budget cuts and promising results that don’t pan out — all while a neon “doomsday clock” marking the days, hours and minutes to LHC’s first collisions ticks down in the background.

The story unfolds through interviews with a range of Fermilab personalities, including Nobel laureate and emeritus director Leon Lederman, the CDF husband-and-wife team of John Conway and Robin Erbacher, and postdoc Ben Kilminster, who moonlights as lead singer in a Fermilab rock band. The film also incorporates clips from a 1979 episode of the talk show Donahue in which Lederman was the principle guest.

The science of accelerators and the Higgs boson is described competently early in the film, with a series of chalkboard-style animations. But the film’s greatest strength is in its portrayal of Fermilab’s scientists, who come across as weirdly normal, despite living in a parallel universe where the geeky trappings of Fermilab tattoos, an all-physicist tango club, and of course the Tevatron itself are just another day at the office.

Yet the disconnect between the scientists’ world and that of the general public is real, and each time it crops up in the film its consequences appear more worrisome. Erbacher may be right to mock the idea of performance targets in particle physics (“We can’t dictate when discoveries happen!”), but many non-scientists also suffer from box-ticking bureaucracy. Should physicists really be less accountable at work than, say, teachers or doctors?

Then there is the question of funding. Many of the interviewees view ever-deeper cuts at Fermilab as a sign that the US is ceding basic research to overseas competitors. In defending these cuts, President Bush’s science advisor John Marburger has an unenviable task. But while the Fermilab scientists attribute their budget problems to the competing demands of defence, Social Security and other usual suspects, Marburger instead cites the up-and-coming fields of biomedical research and nanotechnology. The message is clear: particle physics has rivals within basic research, not just outside it.

At the time of the LHC’s opening, a significant fraction of media coverage focused on its cost. A former UK chief science officer even criticized scientists for not spending the money on medical or climate research instead. The Atom Smashers demonstrates that this conflict is nothing new: one of the Donahue clips shows a member of the studio audience asking Lederman, “Why can’t that money be diverted to cancer research? That seems more important than finding a few new quarks”.

Lederman does his level best to answer her, noting that the entire budget for his lab is less than the cost of a single military aeroplane. By showcasing the scientists and their quest for the Higgs, The Atom Smashers tries as well, yet it’s Fermilab theorist Marcela Carena who provides the best — if most troubling — answer. “Sometimes,” she muses, “the cases are difficult to make.”

Overall, The Atom Smashers is a thoughtful documentary, although one wonders if the final product is entirely what its producers intended. If the film’s time frame had encompassed the LHC’s early problems — and, of course, if Fermilab had found more concrete evidence of the Higgs — the entire tenor of the film could have been wildly different. In this respect, the yearlong delay between the film’s events and its screening is a pity. But the result is both sadder and more intriguing than any come-from-behind David and Goliath clich√© could have been, and its message is worth hearing.

This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

Comments are closed.


  • Comments should be relevant to the article and not be used to promote your own work, products or services.
  • Please keep your comments brief (we recommend a maximum of 250 words).
  • We reserve the right to remove excessively long, inappropriate or offensive entries.

Show/hide formatting guidelines

Tag Description Example Output
<a> Hyperlink <a href="">google</a> google
<abbr> Abbreviation <abbr title="World Health Organisation" >WHO</abbr> WHO
<acronym> Acronym <acronym title="as soon as possible">ASAP</acronym> ASAP
<b> Bold <b>Some text</b> Some text
<blockquote> Quoted from another source <blockquote cite="">IOP</blockquote>
<cite> Cite <cite>Diagram 1</cite> Diagram 1
<del> Deleted text From this line<del datetime="2012-12-17"> this text was deleted</del> From this line this text was deleted
<em> Emphasized text In this line<em> this text was emphasised</em> In this line this text was emphasised
<i> Italic <i>Some text</i> Some text
<q> Quotation WWF goal is to build a future <q cite="">
where people live in harmony with nature and animals</q>
WWF goal is to build a future
where people live in harmony with nature and animals
<strike> Strike text <strike>Some text</strike> Some text
<strong> Stronger emphasis of text <strong>Some text</strong> Some text