The late, great Frederick Pohl opened Chasing Science, his wonderful memoir of scientific tourism, with an account of his visits to America’s national laboratories. Although the majority work under heavy security there is one lab, as Pohl notes, that always welcomes visitors with open arms: Fermilab in DuPage County, Illinois. It is there that the Top Quark was discovered, solidifying the Standard Model and establishing it firmly as the touchstone of modern physics, and it remained the country’s leading particle physics facility until the recent shutdown of the Tevatron accelerator. Even so, it remains a major research center as well as a popular tourist attraction in the greater Chicago area, and the recent documentary Science at Work provides a virtual tour of the lab for those of us who have wanted to but never had a chance to pay a visit.
As its title implies, Science at Work is a film about scientists on the job, chronicling a full work week at Fermilab spotlighting a new project on each day, usually emphasizing one scientist in particular who will serve as sort of a tour guide on the journey. Many of the segments open with the scientists at home, saying goodbye to their children, or bringing them to the lab, either to its day care center or as part of a “Bring Your Sons and Daughters To Work” day. Some drive to work, others ride their bikes. All come off as warm, friendly and gregarious, the type of people you’d love to have as your neighbor; the filmmakers have done an excellent job of choosing their interview subjects. These are precisely the people needed to communicate science to a Middle-American audience, but whose voices have been largely muted until now. One gets the sense that while Fermilab might be in Chicago’s backyard, its values are still those of DuPage and the surrounding counties (Naperville, the largest city in the area, was once named one of the most conservative cities in the country), with a deeply-ingrained sense of hard work, fair play and entrepreneurship incorporated into the scientific ethos. As one researcher puts it, when you’re employed at Fermilab, you become part of a family, and that familial atmosphere really comes through to the film’s credit.
Fermilab was founded and designed in part by its first director, Wyoming native Robert R. Wilson, who incorporated much of his home state into the lab’s prairie terrain; it is as well-known for its herds of buffalo as it is for its scientific work. Appropriately enough for a lab founded by a native of the tiny community of Frontier, Wyoming, Fermilab’s research focuses on what it describes as three fundamental Frontiers of Particle Physics. As eloquently explained in the documentary by senior scientist Herman White and cosmologist Craig Hogan, these are the Cosmic Frontier, which studies naturally-occurring particle interactions to gain a better understanding of dark energy and dark matter, among other phenomena; the Energy Frontier, which involves colliding and accelerating particles at high energies to generate new particles and recreate the early state of the universe under controlled conditions; and finally the Intensity Frontier, which probes matter and subatomic processes with intense muon and neutrino beams (a method developed by the lab’s second director, Leon Lederman, for which he won the Nobel Prize). Each Frontier gets spotlighted by the film, with physicists actively engaged in each project explaining the science behind them. Particularly entertaining is Intensity Frontier physicist Bonnie Fleming’s explanation of neutrino flavor-changing which uses ice cream as a metaphor, complete with Sesame Street-style animation. The eloquence and down-to-earth style of the interview subjects combined with the film’s incorporation of simple animation and graphics go a long way in making the complexity of particle physics accessible to the novice viewer, and if the subject matter is overly simplified, it will at least make most viewers curious enough to learn more about it.
Although an entertaining and thought-provoking documentary, Science at Work is also a flawed film, and the main flaw is reflected in the title. Near the end, one scientist cheerfully remarks that contrary to what you may think, you don’t need to be a genius to be a scientist, just a hard worker and rigorous thinker. Unfortunately, this process of hard work and rigorous thought isn’t really visible on screen. We see them explain it, and we see snippets of the scientists at the job, but we never really get a feeling as to how much effort, mental and physical, that the scientists must put into their work. Nor, for that matter, are all the frustrations that arise from experiments not working, machinery breaking down, mismeasurements, and all the rest documented, although they surely must have occurred during filming! Although we put so much emphasis on getting young people interested in science and in choosing STEM careers, if we aren’t also realistic and depict the hard work and long hours, as well as the particular frustrations of such a career, we are only being unfair to them. Additionally, even though we are told that a majority of those who work at Fermilab are actually not scientists but engineers, machinists, and others who keep the equipment running and in order, and although we see them briefly, we never actually hear from them. They are as much part of the endeavor of discovery as the scientists themselves and it would have been nice to have heard their voices as well. In a longer film-the documentary runs a mere forty-two minutes-there might have been space for them but time and money are as much a bugbear for documentary film as they are for its narrative counterpart.
A more personal quibble is that we don’t get enough of Fermilab itself in the film. Robert Wilson, a gifted architect and sculptor as well as a great scientist, was determined to make sure his lab stood out from the drab dreariness of most government buildings, and although it would be the famously gregarious second director Leon Lederman who would make the lab a public attraction, the attractiveness of the lab with its futuristic buildings and modernist sculptures dotting the landscape, was Wilson’s idea. There’s a beautiful shot early on of one of the scientists bicycling through one Wilson’s sculptures, appropriately called Broken Symmetry, and the movie could have used more images like this, but instead, we frustratingly mostly only see bits and pieces of the lab’s layout and design instead of witnessing it in full. A sequence where a tabletop model of the lab is used to explain the main collider ring winds up being almost comical, like a parody of a scene in a James Bond film where the villain explains his master plan, and only amplifies the frustration of not seeing exteriors of the device up-close and personal.
A just-released documentary called Particle Fever has been receiving much Internet buzz as well as widespread critical acclaim. Dealing with the hunt for the Higgs Boson conducted at CERN and the lives of the scientists involved in the search, it sounds like the type of film I’m always anxious to see, but alas, isn’t opening anywhere near me. Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, I was able to instead watch Science at Work. Just as Fermilab and its achievements shouldn’t be forgotten in the shadow of the Higgs, this dearly made, relatively short film shouldn’t be overlooked with all the hype surrounding Particle Fever and in spite of its flaws, it merits a viewing in order to get to know the people who are furthering our understanding of the universe. Even if it is too cursory to provide a thorough exploration of the lab, it at least encourages our appreciation of those explorers who work within it, and will leave you wanting to learn more. And wanting to learn more is what being a scientist is all about.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Joanna Ploeger, friend, scholar and mentor.