The Making Of
What led you to make THE ATOM SMASHERS?
Our interest began with an article in the Chicago Tribune about the search for the Higgs boson at Fermilab, which was, at the time, home to the largest supercollider in the world and was located in our “backyard” or about 40 miles outside of Chicago. We started to see the story of the search for the Higgs as David (Fermilab) versus Goliath (CERN), with the irony of the U.S. being the little guy! We also saw a race to the finish between two very interesting teams of scientists and their respective machines: who was going to win? The story involved rather esoteric science, both difficult and beautiful, and that meant that we as filmmakers would have a lot to learn and we liked that. After reading Leon Lederman’s book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? we were hooked, and decided to make contact with Fermilab and Dr. Lederman. When he agreed to an interview and the lab offered to take us down into the tunnel, we knew we had access and a story.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
One challenge was the fear and resistance we faced when people heard the word “science.” Time and time again we were asked “What’s your film about?” and we had to figure out ways to explain our story without using that one word. As Natalie Angier, science writer for The New York Times says in our film, “People are afraid of science; they think they can’t understand it.” Once we communicated that yes, our film deals with some cutting edge science, but really, it’s a story with characters that anyone can relate to, they started to relax. Then, when they saw the film, they came away focused on the culture, the politics, the big questions, and didn’t even realize they had learned how a particle accelerator works.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
We like to think we did our homework. We never claimed to be physicists or that we could understand in depth the concepts that they were dealing with every day. But, we kept reading about the Higgs and the search, we made sure to follow the political and budget news affecting the field of high energy physics, we asked questions of our advisor Dr. Oreglia from the University of Chicago and generally, we took the science seriously. We tried to ask smart questions so they could give us smart answers. And more than once a physicist would explain difficult concepts to us as if we were one of them—a very nice compliment.
We also learned that an important point for our subjects was that we kept coming back. All of these scientists are media savvy; they’ve done many interviews and have spoken before lawmakers and politicians. They’re used to reporters swooping in, gathering sound bites and then swooping out again. When they saw us at their lab, again and again and again, they understood that we were there to tell a story, their story, not to make a headline.
Do you think the pursuit of scientific achievement is less highly regarded by the U.S. government now than in the past? If so, why?
Certainly the physicists we met over the nearly three years of filming THE ATOM SMASHERS expressed concern over this administration’s view of science. And significant budget cuts, along with a rather anti-science and anti-intellectual attitude was the norm during the time we filmed. We didn’t set out to make a condemning-the-administration type film. However, we were at Fermilab while court cases involving the teaching of intelligent design in the schools were occurring in several states, and the president of the United States declared his support for allowing schools to include anti-evolution studies in biology classes. During our filming, severe budget cuts to science took place, as well as statements from government officials denying global warming and condemning stem cell research. Early in our filming, the president of Harvard questioned a woman’s ability to even participate in science as a career. It can’t be denied that it’s a weird time in American history for science and scientists. More than one of the physicists pointed out that budget cuts occurred in previous administrations as well, but as Dr. Lederman discusses in the film, while there has always been some tension between the U.S. government and science, “Science has never lost out so completely” as during this administration.
What would you tell a class of sixth graders to get them enthusiastic about studying science?
We could tell them about a scientific search, or better yet introduce them to a scientist who is searching for something. A story is a fun thing to follow; with a search you have a story with a hero (or several) and a quest. What is the scientist looking for and what will she have to do to find it? What are the obstacles in the way and who or what is trying to stop her? If science becomes a great story, sixth graders (or people of any age) will want to stick around for the ending!
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to include?
In the late 1990s, the U.S. government pulled the plug on the Superconducting SuperCollider (SSC), which would have been an enormous ring in Texas, far bigger than the one that is currently firing up in Europe. It was canceled for budgetary reasons, echoing in a sense the plight of the Tevatron. We had a section devoted to this cancellation in an earlier cut of the film as a way to put the shutdown of the Tevatron in context, illustrating that this isn’t the first time the U.S. has demonstrated its complicated relationship with science. It was really a delightful section, because Leon Lederman told the story of a promotional video he made in order to try and get Ronald Reagan’s approval for the enormous project, and we were able to obtain a copy of that video, which is quite hilarious in parts. Luckily, we’re able to include that as one of the “DVD extras” on the PBS Home Video release.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
There are a couple of moments: both of them involve times when scientists revealed something to us on a personal level about what they were feeling, something they are not accustomed to showing. It’s not good scientific practice! But when Joel Butler talks about the surprise he felt when Fermilab’s budget was cut, you can see his personal surprise at what he viewed as a rejection of the project on the part of America—and on some level—of the importance of science itself.
The other moment came when John Conway and Robin Erbacher are talking to each other through the computer. They’ve already told us how difficult the traveling can be on their relationship and they’ve just finished ruminating on how difficult it would be to even attempt to have a child in the crazy world of international scientific research. They’re saying goodbye to each other across the most artificial of technologies, an Internet video hookup, but there is something really tender and heartfelt in the way they manage to bridge that gap and talk about trimming roses and the “honey-do” list. That moment is followed by, to us, the most moving moment in the film: John Conway, in our last interview, gives a remarkable analogy about the work they still have to do. We call it “the cloud story” and it works as a nice piece of closure for the film, as well as for us. It resonated unexpectedly with the model airplane flying motif we had developed, and it also capped the personal journey we had together with John and all the scientists, from the first “point and explain” interviews to this really poetic expression of the hopes and dreams of all scientists.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
When the Tevatron broke down, we were allowed access into the four-mile underground tunnel. No one is allowed in the tunnel during operations, of course, because the amount of radiation and electricity down there can be fatal. While it’s turned off, access is allowed for engineers to repair and update the equipment. They agreed to let us down there, but there were a few steps we had to take first: we had to take a short safety class in which they gave us two radiation “dose-ometers” that would turn colors if we were exposed to dangerous amounts of background radiation. We were also instructed to stand close to our guides at all times in case of fire—the guides carried a quickly deployable oxygen hood that the two of us could huddle under and run for the exits. And we were each given one of about 50 keys. When the Tevatron was scheduled to be fired back up, all 50 keys had to be in place, like a giant car ignition. If even one was missing, the machine wouldn’t come back to life, because it was to be assumed that the owner of that key might be passed out or stuck in the tunnel somewhere. We were told in no uncertain terms, “Don’t lose this key!” Finally as we exited the tunnel after getting our footage, they ran a Geiger counter over us from head to foot to see if we had picked up any radiation (we hadn’t). Luckily, our camera person at the time, Stefani Foster, had nerves of steel. She even sat on the back of a golf cart to get a moving shot around the ring.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
So far the response has been wonderful. People have very specific expectations when they walk into a movie where the words “science,” “particle accelerator” and “atom smasher” are mentioned. They’ve never really thought about scientists as real people, never really expected that they could understand how a particle accelerator works, and never suspected that our country could be slipping behind the rest of the world in basic research.
Our most nerve-wracking screening to date was the one where we showed our physicists the final film. After all, we are non-scientists, coming into their world, attempting to tell their story. So far they have all responded with great enthusiasm.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
We’re storytellers, and we’re driven to do it. It is difficult, but we believe that if you manage to make good films that tell great stories the opportunities will open up for you. That has been the case for us so far.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
It’s a national story and PBS allows us to reach a national audience. Also, audiences look to PBS for interesting and independent stories about complex issues affecting the nation and the world—like the story that is presented in THE ATOM SMASHERS.
Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A?
Sometimes people asked us if we had a hard time getting access to such a top-secret facility. The truth is, Fermilab is about as non-top-secret as you could imagine. They have tours nearly every day and community outreach programs, concerts, even an art gallery. I’ve even seen square dances at Fermilab. It got to the point where we were practically regulars; we’d breeze past the checkpoint, wave at familiar faces in the hallways, eat in the cafeteria. They were wonderfully, admirably open to letting us tell the story how we wanted.
Something we were never asked personally but heard about was the rumor that Fermilab’s buffalo herd—started by Fermilab designer Robert Wilson as a way to symbolize both Fermilab’s research on the “frontier” of science and it’s physical location on the prairie—functioned as a radiation detector, sort of like a canary in a coalmine. Some people were absolutely convinced that Fermilab scientists kept a close eye on those buffalo, and that as soon as they started to fall over, all the scientists would high-tail it out of there. Pretty funny.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
We didn't get to travel to CERN! Next time.
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