While we were watching fireworks this last Fourth of July weekend, scientists around the world were swilling champagne, celebrating the official detection of the Higgs boson. It’s a very big deal. The Higgs is a subatomic particle that gives mass to the universe. Without it, nothing would exist.
The discovery happened in Switzerland at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research — and not at U.S.-based Fermilab, where scientists had been relentlessly dedicated to the quest for the Higgs.
If you’re up for a proud nerd night at home, The Atom Smashers (2008) provides an inside look at how scientists in Illinois were trying to beat the clock and discover the Higgs before CERN could do it.
Who knew there was so much drama in the world of physics?
The Atom Smashers was produced by Chicago’s 137 Films organization, a group dedicated to “creating films out of the stories found in the world of science.” With this documentary, 137 Films succeeds in creating a tale compelling enough that I just may try to read “Physics for Non-Scientists” one more time.
Whatever hesitation I had about a watching a film about super colliders faded to black as soon as the quirky techno opening music began. The soundtrack, by composer Kate Simko, provides a sort of magical segue into the film, where Fermilab looms, surrounded by a herd of buffalo and cracked pavement. It doesn’t seem an inspirational place. The environment actually looks a little sad, with its ’60s-era wood panelling and drop ceilings. The scientists’ offices are small and rickety. This is the home of groundbreaking research?
We are introduced to a cast of characters who are intriguing, incredibly smart (of course), and, well, extremely likable, if not even lovable. They are working together toward a “discovery of a lifetime,” yet they still find time for diversions like their tango club, writing rock music with lyrics based on Unix programming commands, and finding romance.
I became instantly and absolutely smitten with Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate and director emeritus of Fermilab, with his bright-eyed curiosity and excitement about the Higgs work. A flashback clip of a young Lederman on the Phil Donahue show (!?!) congenially discussing particle physics and defending its cost to the American taxpayer made me long for those days when television talk went far beyond what’s-new-with-the-Kardashians.
I now understand how a particle accelerator works!
I also know how to pronounce boson. It rhymes with “hose on,” not “possum.”
The race to find the Higgs accelerates as do the demands made upon the Tevatron accelerator itself (faster! faster!). And while the velocity of the research expands, federal budget cuts loom and the Tevatron operations at Fermilab are scheduled to close. Layoffs begin; scientists start to seek new opportunities. In spite of all of the forces at odds with their quest, the determination of the scientists prevails. (Unfortunately, while we watch, we feel a little beaten, knowing that, in the end, CERN will succeed.)
Upon this year’s celebration of the Higgs, Paul Tipton, professor of physics at Yale University, wrote, “As exciting as this discovery is, and as meaningful as it is to the field of physics, the broader lessons of this human endeavor should not be lost on us…The Higgs discovery also represents a triumph of human curiosity. “
And also, if I may sound corny, it represents the power of the human spirit. The Atom Smashers is a gem of a film giving an inside look into a world of intense curiosity, painstaking commitment, and human collaboration that few of us will ever know.
Get a copy of The Atom Smashers from www.137films.org.