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Independent Lens: The Atom Smashers
Independent Lens The Atom Smashers
Actor: n/a
Director: n/a
Genres: Television, Documentary
NR     2009     1hr 20min

Physicists at Fermilab, the world's most powerful particle accelerator laboratory, are closing in on one of the universe's best-kept secrets: why everything has mass. With the Tevatron, a four-mile underground particle acc...  more »


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Movie Details

Actor: n/a
Director: n/a
Genres: Television, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Television, Science & Technology
Studio: Pbs (Direct)
Format: DVD - Color - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 01/06/2009
Release Year: 2009
Run Time: 1hr 20min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 3
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Lack of structure
D. Davies | 02/22/2010
(2 out of 5 stars)

"Like some other reviewers I was similarly disappointed with the outcome of this particular production. In its defense, the program's title is The Atom Smashers, thus suggesting a concentration on the scientists rather than on the science. However, the program covers a broader spectrum of issues, and, unfortunately, does not tackle them systematically, thereby leaving the viewer uneasy. This aspect could so easily have been solved by dividing the program into distinct chapters: i) the historical background to this species of nuclear physics, ii) the historical role of Fermilab, iii) the current work at Fermilab through the eyes of the current scientific community, iv) the funding crisis, and a scientific (rather than subjective) justification of continued Governmental subsidy, v) thoughts on the future of subatomic particle physics and the work at CERN.

The lack of structural backbone to the presentation is not alleviated by some scientists' constant use of the colloquial. Ben Kilminster is doubtless a fine particle physicist: he is, nonetheless, a poor communicator in the televisual medium, hampered by a lack of ability to express himself cogently and eloquently. In an attempt to portray him as a figure relevant to youth, with examples of his prowess on roller-skates and in the arena of modern popular music, the program directors do not allow him to come across as a razor-sharp champion of the cause. Similarly, the overly-familiar linguistic expression of Robin Erbacher cancels out what surely ought to be a public conception of advanced science conducted by erudite and inspiring people. The program's public is not dumb; their expectations need to be raised up, not patronized. One also assumes that science at this level is hard and difficult, so scientists' pointing this out will possibly engender more animosity than empathy. They are, after all, doing a job for which they are paid.

While some of the other interviewees speak more formally (and, by extension, more convincingly), the force of their arguments is undermined by the general detraction imposed by the program's unnecessary dwelling on dull aspects of private lives. I am sure all the interviewees are very nice people with decent moral fiber, and so forth, beset by the vicissitudes of the human condition (as are we all!), but this does not make for absorbing scientific interaction between scientists and the general public. When we hear from the great mind of Leon Lederman, a brilliant and attractive ambassador in the field, the program fails to bolster him sufficiently so that even he comes across with an air of resignation. This may well be an authentic representation, but it serves to support what other reviewers have observed, namely that the program appears as an account of a spineless grieving for evaporating funds. Where is the scientists' spoil for the fight? Perhaps there is one, but we would not know it having watched this program. The understandable (emotive) question of why tens of millions of US dollars are not redirected towards cancer research is a hugely potent one in the public's perception of such Government schemes. However, the message that we, as cave dwellers of the 21st-century must continue to venture out and discover our genesis, rather than to retreat, fails to be tackled comprehensively enough in this program. Its communication of a sense of apathy brings to mind the controversial cancellation in the USA of the Superconducting Super Collider at Waxahachie in the early 90s, a skeleton now only resurrected in the popular culture of the West Wing, (and that done brilliantly, of course). For most people it remains forgotten.

On an ironic tangent of the funding question, one witnesses the provision of several cases of champagne to celebrate a milestone of the Fermilab's success. If it was paid for by the Federal Government then here is a missed opportunity for a point of gratitude to be made: a thank you for the taxpayers' money seen as going towards the joy as well as the grit of such a project would have been appropriate.

Finally, a comment about the definition of a Higgs boson in this program. While some of the interviewees coyly play with the notion that this hypothetical mechanism is as impossible to define as it is, apparently, to discover, a metaphorical description could be addressed in a matter of minutes (Lederman's wonderful teaching style comes closest here.) Given that the Higgs is a major aspect of the program's focus it seems ridiculous that more time is not allocated to the science behind the definition. Yes, the mathematical complexity behind physics at this level is daunting for many, if not most. Nonetheless, it must be possible to delineate the subject in a way which takes as its starting point people's intelligence not their lack of it. Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman and Leon Lederman all succeeded, at various points in their lives, to open up the minds of those for whom particle physics is traditionally a forbidding area of scientific concept, observation, theory and experiment. To say that science needs to be more `sexy' is a horrible indictment of the minds of young people. Children do not need the teaching of science to be more sexy: they need it to be taught with a charismatic conviction setting the highest intellectual goals, and underscoring a purpose far beyond the realm of the roller-skate and the rock band."
A nation in decline
Aldus Huxley | Antarctica | 01/01/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)

"I enjoyed this documentary. I watch a lot of science related programming, so this was okay for me.

It would be good if more people realized how much damage the Bush Administration has done to the sciences, but this probably will not happen. Many Americans just do not have an interest in science. As a country, we are on the way down. Our lead role in the World is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Our next supercollider was shelved years ago due to politics. Meanwhile, the rest of the World moves ahead, and other countries are now becoming the leaders. Beating on our chests and saying "America is the best" is not enough. We actually have to do something to stay the best.

I am a software engineer, and there seem to be fewer and fewer American people that understand anything anymore. Much of our high-tech work is routinely farmed out overseas.

That whimpering sound you hear in your ears is the noise a country makes when it is in decline.
Nerds on a quest
Paper Pen | Long Beach, CA USA | 06/12/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)

""Atom Smashers" attempts to make a difficult scientific topic interesting to a general audience, with only partial success.

The documentary portrays the effort of scientists at Fermilab, near Chicago, to find the "Higgs boson," an atom-like particle that many theorists believe must exist, but no one has actually found. Some describe it as key to understanding life itself.

The strength of the film lies in its portrayal of the scientists -- dedicated, passionate people who are unashamed nerds (they write songs using terms from the Unix programming language, for instance). They're likeable folks and they are committed to finding the Higgs boson, though not very good at explaining what it is.

As a viewer, you want to get caught up in this quest, but the film does a poor job of explaining the scientists' efforts. We see researchers planning experiments and we're shown various charts and diagrams, but too little effort is made to explain them. It seems like the filmmakers gave in too easily to the idea that particle physics is really complicated and difficult to understand, so why bother trying.

The other weak point in the film is a clunky section in the middle in which the scientists whine about dwindling government funding for their program. It was like a PBS fundraising drive suddenly interrupting an otherwise engaging drama.