Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The Atom Smashers"--tonight on PBS


Wow, a back to back science offering from PBS. Tonight on Independent Lens is a program called "The Atom Smashers".

"The Atom Smashers"

And co-director Clayton Brown's blog

the atom smasher

"Review: The Atom Smashers"



October 1st, 2008

Who knew smashing atoms together would be so interesting?

With all the hoopla lately over the possible end of the world and the recent launch of CERN's new Large Hadron Collider, this movie's release was timed pretty well.

The Atom Smashers follows a group of physicists who are all involved in research at Fermilab to look for the famed Higgs Boson, or "God Particle", well before the folks in Europe started looking. But instead of just chronicling the hunt itself, the documentary examines the daily lives of the men and women who have devoted their careers to look for something they don't really know exists. An apt quote from the movie goes, "It is difficult to see a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat."

Instead of wearing white lab coats and pocket protectors, these career-long geeks are shown not to be anything near society's stereotypical perception of scientists. They play in rock bands, dress like skaters, dance in salsa clubs (albeit badly), and fly model airplanes. They have relationships with each other that come under strain with project deadlines and conferences. The researchers are seen as human beings with super-human determination.

In addition to the personal struggle to maintain normal lives, the scientists come under intense pressure with reduced funding and program cuts from the Bush administration. It points out the irony about how the people making the decisions for scientific funding don't fully understand the underlying principles of the science that is being researched. They also feel the heat as they compete with the impending completion of the European machine, in a race that is seen as "competitive collaboration".

Being an engineer myself, I related to this piece quite well and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with an ounce of inner-geekdom. Any film where you can just sense the tension on screen is a good film in my books. The documentary also does a great job of examining the question of "why" and the whole purpose behind the decades-long search for the elusive particle.

It's unfortunate however that the ending is open ended. But then again, that's all due to timing, as the search for the "God Particle" continues...

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