Independent Lens: The Atom Smashers

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.

RATING 7 / 10