Independent Lens: The Atom Smashers

Science, in a previous version of the United States, was part of daily, popular culture, a subject and career considered respectable, even admirable.

Independent Lens

Airtime: Tuesday, 10:30pm ET
Cast: John Conway, Robin Erbacher, Ben Kilminster, Marcela Carena, Leon Lederman
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: The Atom Smashers
Network: PBS
US release date: 2008-11-25

In 1979, Leon Lederman appeared on Donahue. A particle physicist, he was, at the time, director of a laboratory near Chicago that housed the world's largest particle accelerator. Donahue's audience is receptive, especially as their host enthusiastically helps to make sense of Lederman's complex science. Fermilab, Lederman explains, houses the Tevatron, a four-mile tunnel outfitted with over 1,000 magnets to create a giant vacuum in order to speed subatomic particles along at the speed of light -- all toward the end of discovering the "God particle."

While the project Lederman describes is surely daunting, the remarkable point of the Donahue clip is how undaunted his audience appears. One by one, women stand to ask reasonable, insightful questions -- about the work, the possibilities, and the costs (someone suggests that the money be diverted to something less abstract, something like cancer research). None of them seems the least bit threatened by the science or the scientist, all want to know more. Science, in this former United States, was part of daily, popular culture, a subject and career considered respectable, even admirable.

That was then. Now, as pointed out in Clayton Brown and Monica Ross' The Atom Smashers, the situation is changed. Airing 25 November on PBS' Independent Lens, the documentary introduces members of the Fermilab crew, still hard at work in search of the elusive particle, also known as Higgs boson (theorist Peter Higgs makes a brief appearance), referred to more than once as the "Holy Grail," an infinitely small particle sought by thousands of scientists for 40 years -- also known as "the template on which life is built" and "the reason the universe can exist." The search has outlasted Lederman's tenure at Fermilab (a Nobel Laureate in 1988, he is now Director Emeritus) and continues to obsess various brilliant minds around the world. The film's plot, such as it is, concerns the imminent opening of a lab in Switzerland, with a bigger accelerator called the LHC supercollider, whose scientists are directly competing and also collaborating with those at Fermilab. The race to be first -- if not exactly urgent -- offers a possible trajectory.

That's not to say that such trajectory is what matters most at Fermilab. What does matter, in this new, decidedly anti-science age, is whether the work can be funded. As Lederman recalls, somewhat wistfully, the greatest moment to be a scientist was after World War II. Scientists were in demand, the questions and goals they posed seemed important, and the U.S. government was considered a world leader in funding and encouraging their ventures.

While everyone benefits from this approbation, the folks at Fermilab incarnate a particular keenness for the very idea of science, in addition for its daily details. The film focuses on several in particular, like Robin Erbacher and her husband John Conway. They both teach at UC Davis as well as work at the lab, and so they spend a lot of time "on the road," commuting, giving presentations to make their work known. ("I used to think I never wanted to date a physicist," she smiles, "It became clear that it's so much easier to relate to an academic.") While Conway admits that the task is heady (he's looking, for "possibilities for what the Higgs could look like"), he also describes his work in determinedly visceral terms (at least one recent discovery, he recalls, moved him physically: "When I first saw it, the hair on the back of my neck rose up").

Chris Quigg, a theoretical physicist who is introduced alongside his affectionate black poodle, says, "I can't imagine not getting up in the morning and not thinking about the search for the Higgs boson." Each day, he and his fellow seekers compile and pour through data daily, thrilled by small breakthroughs. "We will have the answer within five to 10 years," he assures. Or maybe not.

The film indicates the difficulty of maintain a balance between "real world" concerns (shopping for groceries, paying mortgages) and the thrilling life of the mind in pursuit of that real world in other forms. The founder of Fermilab, Robert Wilson, knew the value of commercial appeal -- making his case on TV and establishing a buffalo herd on the grounds of the lab, as a representation of The Frontier. Now, the scientists at Fermilab -- who deem themselves theorists or experimenters, all sharing in the day-to-day efforts -- are feeling pinched, by lack of money and also lack of approbation. Experimental scientist Ben Kilminster includes among his office knickknacks a collection of Simspons action figures, his favorite being Steven Hawking's likeness ("With pint of beer in his hand," Kilminster notes, "I'm not sure how realistic that is"). He also has a button featuring George W. Bush's portrait, inscribed "Nucular." In a nutshell, this is the cultural and political problem faced by Fermilab and other facilities like it: money and understanding are not only scarce, but science is actively disparaged by the administration and politicians who want to be elected. As Bush and Sarah Palin embody it, the popular tilt toward anti-intellectualism is increasingly costly for the pursuit of knowledge.

The trouble is represented in the film by John Marburger, Bush's science advisor. "I don't expect the high energy budget to grow very much," he says, another way of saying the budget has been cut repeatedly during the administration, especially since 2001, when defense and national security budgets increased. Natalie Angier, science writer at the New York Times, explains the effects of the shift in U.S. official interest around the world. "Other nations are looking at us like we're in a seizure of insanity here," she says, "They can't understand it, because they've always looked to the U.S. as being a leader. This is some kind of weird little transgression, they're waiting for us to come out of it." Even as priorities for government spending shift, the Higgs boson remains. During a meeting of scientists sharing their recent accumulations of knowledge, one speaker puts the following observation from Confucius on his projector: "The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat." While the aphorism articulates the perennial difficulty of science, it also might allude to the current cultural context. Even more frustrating for scientists is the willful denial that the room exists.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.