The Atom Smashers

Physics and international competition collide as scientists race to find an elusive sub-atomic particle: the Higgs boson.

Atom smashers 01
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
November 25, 2008
60 minutes
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2008 Pariscience Festival-Audacity Prize
  • Brown clayton filmmaker bio

    Clayton Brown

    Clayton Brown is a musician and documentary and fiction filmmaker whose films have been screened across the country. His most recent film, Galileo’s Grave (with producer Andrew Suprenant) won the IFP/Chicago Production Fund grant. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and received an MFA in film from Northwestern University, where he is now on the faculty teaching film production and post-production.

    Ross monica filmmaker bio

    Monica Ross

    Monica Long Ross’s short films (The Story of My Life, Memory, Dinner) have been screened both nationally and internationally, and her published theatrical plays (Clarissa’s Closet, Montana Molly and the Peppermint Kid) have been produced around the country. She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, received an MFA in film from Northwestern University, is an associate director of The Arizona Women’s Theatre Company in Scottsdale, Arizona, and lives and works in Chicago. Along with her work with 137 Films, she teaches at Columbia College, Chicago.

    Suprenant andrew filmmaker bio

    Andrew Suprenant

    Andrew Suprenant has created commercial projects in Chicago for six years. His work has been recognized by INTERCOM, the industrial arm of the Chicago International Film Festival. Andrew’s clients include New Balance, Asthmatic Kitty Records, Indy Racing League, The Museum of Science and Industry, PepsiCo, Thrillist, Blender Magazine, and Lollapalooza. His filmic debut, Galileo’s Grave, won the IFP/Chicago Production Fund grant. He was born in Kankakee, Illinois, and has a degree in radio/TV/film from Northwestern University.

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    The Film

    Physicists at Fermilab, the most powerful particle accelerator in the United States, are closing in on one of the universe’s best-kept secrets: What is known as the Holy Grail of physics or the reason why everything has mass. With the Tevatron, an underground particle accelerator buried deep beneath the Illinois prairie, Fermilab scientists smash matter together, accelerating protons and antiprotons in a four-mile-long ring at nearly the speed of light. They do this to find the God particle—the Higgs boson—whose existence was theorized nearly 40 years ago by Scottish scientist Peter Higgs. The physicists searching for the Higgs boson are excited; they may be approaching the discovery of a lifetime and there’s almost certainly a Nobel Prize for whoever finally finds it.

    Wars, natural disasters, and a growing deficit are chipping away at America’s ability to maintain its role as science leader. In the midst of this uncertainty, Fermilab struggles to stay alive, just as a new and more powerful accelerator in Europe prepares to open its doors and potentially make the discovery first. This tightening race makes Fermilab physicists like Nobel Laureate and elder statesman Leon Lederman, rock band front man Ben Kilminster, and newlyweds John Conway and Robin Erbacher contemplate their future in physics. Despite dwindling support, the scientists show infectious enthusiasm as they wrangle the cantankerous Tevatron to record-breaking energies, increasing the odds of a discovery. Then, in December 2006, research findings indicate that the Higgs might be lighter than previously believed and, therefore, easier for Fermilab to find.

    Then comes the bombshell: governmental budgets are slashed and a key project is canceled at Fermilab. The Tevatron is scheduled to be turned off permanently, unless a major discovery is made. A race to the finish begins.

    The Atom Smashers explores what happens when politicians, not scientists, decide which scientific projects will be funded and which will be cut, and depicts the contradictions that arise when the most educated population in the world begins to doubt the place and value of science. Archival film and vintage footage illustrate the history of Fermilab and cultural attitudes towards science in America, with key scientific ideas brought to life through animation. Despite the setbacks, the physicists at Fermilab continue the search. Until Europe’s atom smasher goes online and starts generating the massive amounts of collisions it takes to find such a minute particle, there’s still a chance that they can win the race. As physicist John Conway says, “This work is too important not to be done somewhere.” But will it be done here in the U.S.? Or will he and the rest of the physicists at Fermilab soon be packing their bags for Europe?