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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 cliché could have been, and its message is worth hearing.

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