The Atom Smashers

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

Film Signature Image
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
November 25, 2008
60 minutes
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2008 Pariscience Festival-Audacity Prize
  • Headshot of The Debate producer, Clayton Brown

    Clayton Brown

    Clayton Brown is a Senior Lecturer in the department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University. He is a documentary and narrative filmmaker interested in exploring the hidden stories and compelling characters that emerge when people pursue their passions. Of particular interest are the ways in which science and storytelling intersect, both in Show more fiction and non-fiction. His fiction work includes Galileo's Grave, winner of the Chicago IFP Production Fund and Best Short Film at the Albany and East Lansing film festivals, and The Darkening Sun, about the first woman to photograph a solar eclipse in 1869. He is a co-founder of 137 Films, a Chicago-based award-winning documentary production company committed to telling stories about America’s complicated relationship with science. He co-directed The Atom Smashers (Independent Lens), a documentary about the search for the Higgs boson particle; The Believers, which tells the story of two scientists who thought they had discovered Cold Fusion; and 137 Films’ documentary We Believe in Dinosaurs. Show less

    Headshot of  The Debate producer, Monica Long Ross.

    Monica Long Ross

    Monica Long Ross is a filmmaker and playwright. She is a co-founder of 137 Films, a Chicago-based documentary production company. Ross co-directed and co-produced the award-winning documentaries We Believe in Dinosaurs (Independent Lens), The Atom Smashers (Independent Lens), and The Believers. Monica's documentaries have been screened at Show more festivals around the world, as have her short films exploring women, memory, and the dangers lurking in nostalgia (Pantyhose, Dinner, Memory, The Story of My Life, We Read Different Books). Dinner was a finalist at the Rose d'Or Montreux in Switzerland. She was a founding member and playwright for Childsplay in Tempe AZ (Clarissa’s Closet, Montana Molly and the Peppermint Kid, Phoebe Joins the Circus) and the Arizona Women’s Theatre Company (Complications, Crazy Sexy). Show less


    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 Show more 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. Show less

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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?