The Atom Smashers

November 25, 2008


About the Documentary

Physicists at Fermilab, the most powerful particle accelerator in the United States, are closing in on one of the universe’s best-kept secrets: what is known as the Holy Grail of physics or the reason why everything has mass. With the Tevatron, an underground particle accelerator buried deep beneath the Illinois prairie, Fermilab scientists smash matter together, accelerating protons and antiprotons in a four-mile-long ring at nearly the speed of light. They do this to find the God particle—the Higgs boson—whose existence was theorized nearly 40 years ago by Scottish scientist Peter Higgs. The physicists searching for the Higgs boson are excited; they may be approaching the discovery of a lifetime and there’s almost certainly a Nobel Prize for whoever finally finds it.

Wars, natural disasters and a growing deficit are chipping away at America’s ability to maintain its role as science leader. In the midst of this uncertainty, Fermilab struggles to stay alive, just as a new and more powerful accelerator in Europe prepares to open its doors and potentially make the discovery first. This tightening race makes Fermilab physicists like Nobel Laureate and elder statesman Leon Lederman, rock band front man Ben Kilminster and newlyweds John Conway and Robin Erbacher contemplate their future in physics. Despite dwindling support, the scientists show infectious enthusiasm as they wrangle the cantankerous Tevatron to record-breaking energies, increasing the odds of a discovery. Then, in December 2006, research findings indicate that the Higgs might be lighter than previously believed and, therefore, easier for Fermilab to find.

Then comes the bombshell: governmental budgets are slashed and a key project is canceled at Fermilab. The Tevatron is scheduled to be turned off permanently, unless a major discovery is made. A race to the finish begins.

The Atom Smashers explores what happens when politicians, not scientists, decide which scientific projects will be funded and which will be cut, and depicts the contradictions that arise when the most educated population in the world begins to doubt the place and value of science. Archival film and vintage footage illustrate the history of Fermilab and cultural attitudes towards science in America, with key scientific ideas brought to life through animation. Despite the setbacks, the physicists at Fermilab continue the search. Until Europe’s atom smasher goes online and starts generating the massive amounts of collisions it takes to find such a minute particle, there’s still a chance that they can win the race. As physicist John Conway says, “This work is too important not to be done somewhere.” But will it be done here in the U.S.? Or will he and the rest of the physicists at Fermilab soon be packing their bags for Europe?


Filmmakers Clayton Brown, Monica Long Ross, and Andrew Suprenant provided an update in October 2008 for what some of the people featured in The Atom Smashers have been doing since filming ended.

John Conway and Robin Erbacher, physics professors at UC Davis, live in California with their son Ian, born in June 2008. They continue to travel to Fermilab and CERN to work with their students, who work at the two laboratories. They are both still looking for the Higgs boson, which they believe is just waiting to be discovered.

Ben Kilminster took a job in 2008 as a staff scientist at Fermilab, where he continues his involvement in several Higgs search analysis efforts. He is also getting involved in the CMS experiment at CERN. The Fermilab rock band now has a new drummer.

Marcela Carena continues to lead the Tango club and the theoretical push to find the Higgs. She is very excited (and a little scared) by the prospect that her ideas will be tested at the LHC. She has been working intensively to try different theoretical models in which “the Higgs looks very different from what we expect!”

Leon Lederman turned 86 in 2008; he is a Resident Scholar at the school he founded in 1986, The Illinois Math and Science Academy.

Chris Quigg’s expectations for the LHC are reported in “The Coming Revolutions in Particle Physics,” in the February 2008 Scientific American.

Mark Oreglia is planning for the International Linear Collider, the machine that will likely come after the LHC.

Gregorio Bernardi is still searching for the Higgs boson at the Tevatron and reinforcing his team for, hopefully, the final push.

All the Fermilab scientists are keeping an eye on the developments at CERN, trying to negotiate their position between these two massive machines, eagerly waiting for data and answers.

The Filmmakers

Clayton Brown
Clayton Brown is a musician and documentary and fiction filmmaker whose films have been screened across the country. His most recent film, Galileo’s Grave (with producer Andrew Suprenant) won the IFP/Chicago Production Fund grant. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and received an MFA in film from Northwestern University, where he is now on the faculty teaching film production and post-production.

Monica Long Ross
Monica Long Ross’s short films (The Story of My Life, Memory, Dinner) have been screened nationally and internationally and her published theatrical plays (Clarissa’s Closet, Montana Molly And The Peppermint Kid) have been produced around the country. She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, received an MFA in film from Northwestern University, is an associate director of The Arizona Women’s Theatre Company in Scottsdale, Arizona and lives and works in Chicago. Along with her work with 137 Films, she teaches at Columbia College, Chicago.

Andrew Suprenant
Andrew Suprenant has created commercial projects in Chicago for six years. His work has been recognized by INTERCOM, the industrial arm of the Chicago International Film Festival. Andrew’s clients include New Balance, Asthmatic Kitty Records, Indy Racing League, The Museum of Science and Industry, PepsiCo, Thrillist, Blender Magazine and Lollapalooza. His filmic debut, Galileo’s Grave, won the IFP/Chicago Production Fund grant. He was born in Kankakee, Illinois, and has a degree in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University.


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