Independent Lens: Atom Smashers

Tue, 11/25/2008 - 10:30pm

Dr. Ben Kilminister, particle physics researcher, looks at historical prints from bubble chambers.

Andrew Suprenant/ITVS

Physicists at Fermilab, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator laboratory, are closing in on one of the universe’s best-kept secrets, the Holy Grail of physics: 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, to find a 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. Independent Lens: Atom Smashers airs Tuesday, November 25 at 10:30 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

Wars, natural disasters and a growing deficit are chipping away at America’s ability to maintain its role as science leader. Many science programs have been cut from the federal budget, and critical support for Fermilab is waning. In the midst of this uncertainty, Fermilab struggles to stay alive. Its experimental physicists, including Nobel laureate and elder statesman Leon Lederman, rock band frontman Ben Kilminster, and newlyweds John Conway and Robin Erbacher, contemplate their future in physics. Despite dwindling support, the scientists have infectious enthusiasm, wrangling the cantankerous Tevatron to record-breaking energies, increasing the odds of a discovery. And in December 2006, increasing the excitement, research findings indicate that the Higgs might be lighter than previously believed and, therefore, easier for Fermilab to find.

Then comes a bombshell: A new and more powerful accelerator in Europe will open its doors in 2008, and if Fermilab does not make a major discovery before then, the Tevatron will be turned off permanently.

The Atom Smashers chronicles 15 tense months at Fermilab as it scours the subatomic world for the Higgs. Will the discovery happen? Will the United States continue to lead the world in science? Or will it slip behind and watch as the greatest minds in physics drift across the Atlantic, closing a great chapter in American scientific progress?