High energy physicists at Fermilab in Illinois, with the help of the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, are racing to discover the universe’s best kept secret. They smash protons and antiprotons together at nearly the speed of light to find what some call the “Holy Grail of physics” while others just consider it the essential ingredient for life.
However, all can agree that this so-called “God particle” – the Higgs boson – is the discovery of a lifetime and the next step in discovering the mechanisms for life itself.
But Fermilab is not alone in this race. Time is short. It is only a matter of time until Europe’s monstrosity, the Large Hadron Collider surpasses Fermilab’s particle accelerator, the Tevatron, and become the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. And once it turns on, it seems like Tevatron’s survival is at stake, as well as the United States‘ standing as a groundbreaking scientific nation.
Sound like a science fiction movie coming to a theater near you? That’s because it is – minus the fiction.
Two UC Davis professors and high-energy physicists, John Conway and Robin Erbacher, participated in a new science documentary called “The Atom Smashers.”
Distributed by PBS, the film documents the race for the discovery of the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle that is thought to be responsible for matter having mass. The documentary also features Fermilab, an American high energy physics laboratory, and its struggles with United States politics and the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.
Directors Clayton Brown and Monica Long held a special showing of the movie on the UC Davis campus on Sunday in 194 Chemistry, along with both Conway and Erbacher.
Unlike many science documentaries, Conway explains that this film is completely different.
“[The film is] a new approach to how to do a science documentary,” Conway said. “The science occurs organically.“
The directors also chose to go in a different direction in regard to a narrator. Instead, they decided to shoot it as if it was a feature film, with a plot and characters.
“[We] wanted to make a film where there were characters [and] people were telling a story,” Brown said.
The showing began with introductions from Winston Ko, dean of mathematical and physical sciences at UC Davis, Conway, and Brown speaking about the film itself and the struggles of making such a documentary.
The film documents Fermilab’s work with the Tevatron from 2004 to the summer of 2008. It follows the lives of various physicists at Fermilab, especially Conway and Erbacher, and Fermilab’s struggles, including the looming prospect that the discovery of the Higgs boson could slip through their fingers as the LHC comes online. These struggles are scientific and political in nature, as funding was constantly cut down to the point that the Tevatron’s survival, and the United States‘ ranking for scientific research, hangs in the balance.
After the 73-minute film, the floor opened up for questions to both directors, Conway and Erbacher. It was followed by a reception in 194 Chemistry’s entrance hall, catered with hors d’oeuvres with all four speakers.
The movie itself raised many pressing issues regarding American politics and its role in science. According to the film’s website, the movie explores what happens when politicians, not scientists, decide which scientific projects will be funded and which we 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.
The film also answered one question that seemed to be the most prominent in regard to how this research is important. In the movie New York Times writer Natalie Angier had the clearest answer – it is life and if it is worth searching for, it is worth discovering.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgXXX.