The Enduring Mystery of the Higgs Boson

Or how a documentary film makes the attempt to verify the existence of an atomic particle as fascinating as it really is.
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Or how a documentary film makes the attempt to verify the existence of an atomic particle as fascinating as it really is.

For an entity some consider the contemporary equivalent of the Holy Grail, it has an unassuming, vaguely nerdy name: the Higgs boson. Some years back, a profit-seeking publisher dubbed it “The God Particle.” Documentary filmmakers Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross avoid that sort of overstatement in The Atom Smashers, their lively look at a group of physicist/detectives. Finding the boson — a specific type of subatomic particle — will not be like seeing the face of God. It will, however, suggest we’re starting to grasp how His mind works.

The existence of the Higgs boson would indicate scientists have a solid (if limited) understanding of how the universe works on a subatomic level. That alone makes the search for the elusive particle a high-stakes endeavor. Add such charged elements as national pride, the politicization of science and a race against the clock — or at least the calendar — and you have a rich, dramatic story. The Atom Smashers, which has its broadcast premiere Nov. 25 on the PBS series Independent Lens, tells it in a clear and compelling way.

The film focuses on the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a strikingly designed building that improbably rises from the prairie in a semirural area 35 miles from Chicago. It is home to the Tevatron, a 4-mile-long, O-shaped machine that has long been the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. The facility’s 900 physicists, engineers and computer professionals have made a series of important discoveries over the decades, providing empirical evidence that the Standard Model of the universe, codified in the 1970s, paints an accurate picture of how subatomic particles interact.

A huge question remains unanswered, however. According to the Standard Model, the basic components of the atom — protons, neutrons and electrons — should not have mass (the property that gives them weight when they feel the tug of gravity). So why do they? In the 1970s, British physicist Peter Higgs theorized they bulk up as they pass through a “Higgs field.” Higgs’ boson — which the physicists search for as they smash atoms together and examine the resulting fragments — would be a remnant of that field, confirmation that it indeed exists. Its discovery would affirm the accuracy of the Standard Model and provide evidence in favor of string theory, a controversial “theory of everything.”

Brown and Ross faced several daunting challenges as they attempted to make this material cinematic. The search for the boson involves a lot of thinking, calculating and staring at computer screens — activities that do not, as a rule, lend themselves to exciting visual imagery. In addition, there are no climactic “eureka moments.” Even when a blip in the numbers suggests the scientists may be onto something, they have to wait for weeks or months to get confirmation.

But the filmmakers also had one important factor working in their favor. In September, a bigger, stronger particle accelerator went on line in Switzerland. A problem with its electromagnets shut it down, but once up again it will render much of Fermilab obsolete. The Bush administration has made it clear that funding for the Illinois facility — already slashed several times in recent years — will be dramatically reduced, and the Tevatron will likely be shut down in 2010.

This reality, which began sinking in as Brown and Ross were filming in 2005 and 2006, provided the project — and the film — with a sense of urgency. The physicists would love the discovery of Higgs’ boson to be the Tevatron’s final triumph. They also fret about America’s loss of supremacy in science and wonder out loud why so few of their countrymen seem to care.

Brown and Ross focus on four Fermilab scientists — the ones who “couldn’t suppress their natural excitement,” according to Ross. Their passion for this work is obvious, as is their fear that time will run out just as they’re closing in on a discovery. The scientists’ frustration is evident as they address such questions as “What’s the point of all this?” or “Why spend money on this when we could be curing cancer?” The film doesn’t provide any definitive answers, but it does include a provocative interview with New York Times science writer Natalie Angier, who suggests that understanding how the universe works — and appreciating its inherent beauty — may be mankind’s highest calling, arguably even the reason for our existence.

Such weighty philosophical ideas are balanced by entertaining clips from 1950s and 1960s science documentaries as well as a 1970s episode of The Phil Donahue Show featuring the former director of Fermilab, Leon Lederman. Then there is the footage of the underground machine itself, which, Brown notes, “has a visceral beauty that attracted us. It’s old and cantankerous. It pulses and it beeps and it clicks.” Indeed, the Tevatron at times seems a big brother to Wall-E; like the Pixar trash compactor, it continues chugging along, doing its job, even as fewer and fewer people notice or care.

This imagery gives the film an elegiac feel. For baby boomers who grew up during the space age, scientific discovery was a noble, exciting, patriotic pursuit. But in this age of high-tech toys, the public seems far more interested in practical applications than pure science. A herd of bison grazes on the grounds of Fermilab, placed there by one of the facility’s designers as a whimsical metaphor — a reminder that the scientists who work there are on the frontier of knowledge. The Atom Smashers reminds us what an exciting place that can be.

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