Menus Subscribe Search

The Enduring Mystery of the Higgs Boson

• October 22, 2008 • 5:38 PM

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.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.