Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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