Exploring CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory and birthplace of the World Wide Web and the Higgs boson particle.

Exploring CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory and birthplace of the World Wide Web and the Higgs boson particle.

In the unassuming commuter town of Meyrin on the Franco-Swiss border lies CERN, or The European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.

Since 1954, scientists from all over Europe have worked together at CERN to advance our understanding of particle physics.

Alongside many major scientific discoveries, the laboratory first proved the existence of the Higgs boson particle, invented the World Wide Web and continues to operate the Large Hadron Collider.

Director Liz Mermin was granted unprecedented access to shoot CERN People, a series that reveals the personal stories behind the facility’s ground-breaking scientific research.

How did you discover the amazing stories at CERN?
I was initially asked to go to CERN by the producer Roger Graef (of Films of Record), who was interested in making a documentary there but didn’t know what the angle should be. My father is a theoretical physicist so I know a bit more about the subject than your average filmmaker and loved the idea of learning more about this world; but I had no clue what would or wouldn’t be interesting, or where to start looking.

My father explained to me what the Higgs Boson search was about, how it was the only piece of the “Standard Model” – the theory on which all of modern particle physics is based – whose existence had not yet been confirmed experimentally. Finding it would mean confirming theories that had seemed crazy when they’d first been dreamt up, over half a century ago; NOT finding it would mean the entire discipline would have to go back to the drawing board, that everything that had been taken as truth for the past 50 years had to be wrong.

So when I went to CERN for a recce and found out that 2012 was pretty much guaranteed to be the year in which scientists at CERN would either find the particle or rule it out, it was obvious there would be a dramatic story. It is rare in physics that you have a promise of anything actually happening: this was a moment to seize, when you could have a front-row seat as scientific history took place before your eyes. I also knew that your average TV science doc focuses on big-name scientists who double as presenters, using the same people over and over and over again, and I was quite sure that there would be great characters in the shadows.

Finally, it struck me that CERN was this miraculous international collaboration: the most successful international collaboration in the world, driven not by a desire for profit or fame, but a desire to find out fundamental realities about our existence. This sounds sort of cheesy, but it really does puncture the neo-liberal view of humanity and I love it – and them – for it.

What were the challenges in presenting their story to a wider audience?
The subject matter is challenging, to say the least. I promised myself that it would not be a film (or as it later turned into a short film series) about physics, but one about physicists. The focus had to remain on the people, their frustrations, their motivations, their hopes & disappointments.

The problem of course was the moment you asked them to explain any of this you got an answer that required an undergraduate course in physics to understand. So I filmed all that and worked it out as best I could in my head and then tried to boil it down to an essence that would be simple enough for an intelligent but scientifically illiterate audience to follow. This took a long time…

Who or what did you find most interesting during your time at CERN?
I couldn’t possibly say who was most intriguing, there were so many great stories, including some that didn’t make it into the film. There was a lovely Polish scientist in his sixties whose eyes literally welled up when he told me about his dreams, as an impoverished young boy in Poland, of working at CERN.

There was an amazing human drama taking place in the antimatter building, where two rival American scientists had teams working literally side by side in a race to measure antimatter – the competition was ferocious, and personal.

In fact competition was a theme throughout CERN – friendly competition between experiments, they kept saying, but when you probed at it people’s loyalties to their experiments were intense. There are four experiments working around the LHC: two are doing their own thing to some degree, and two – the two biggest, Atlas & CMS – are doing exactly the same thing in slightly different ways, and the competition between them was very serious. And the strangest thing about it was that they weren’t competing for anything tangible! It wasn’t like one of them would discover the Higgs Boson and the other wouldn’t. They were competing for a sense of professional superiority, of having performed better, more precisely, more quickly than the other. Most outsiders see CERN as CERN but it contains many worlds.

What did you feel your responsibility to the people who work at CERN was?
My responsibility to my subjects is the same in any film I make: to represent them and their work or their lives in a way that they would consider to be fair. My test for this is that I have to feel comfortable sitting through a screening next to them (I have done this with many but not all of my films, but I always imagine it). If there are moments when they appear less than perfect, and inevitably there are, they have to be kind and to serve the story. Most people, if they see that a moment when they are shown to be angry or unreasonable helps build up a story in which what they care about is represented powerfully and honestly, don’t mind in the end (sometimes there are bumps along the way).

I also had people at CERN check all the short films before they went out to be sure that I hadn’t mis-represented any of the science or work going on there. And of course, most importantly, we had to promise not to talk to reveal any of their discussions about discoveries until the results of the experiments had been made public. The promise that we would put nothing online that hadn’t been approved on these grounds was essential.

That said I had total creative freedom. There were times when they said they weren’t thrilled with an aspect of the film – for example, “The Shrinking Field” features a lot of young physicists who are very depressed about their job prospects and this isn’t exactly great PR, but no one asked me not to post. By that time (it was the end of the second series) I think I’d earned their trust. CERN is dependent on public financing, and understandably concerned about its image, but they were always a pleasure to work with and have supported the films 100% – which is gratifying.

What are the major things you have learnt from making the series?
Well I learned a hell of a lot about physics, but I won’t bore you with any of that (although it’s fascinating, trust me – read Ian Sample’s great book about CERN if you want a taste). I learned that the drive to solve problems of ever increasing difficulty can be an addiction as strong as that for money or drugs, and that this is something we should exploit, more.

It’s insane that any of the people I met working at CERN should be out of a job for a second: as Joe Incandela, the spokesperson for CMS, says in one of the films, some institute should be grabbing these guys and throwing problems at them – they will come up with exciting solutions.

That so many people from all over the world, different backgrounds, speaking different languages, can work together so successfully – and for very little money at that (most of them anyway) – is astounding. Especially given that these are some of the most competitive people you will ever encounter! Some consultancy could make a lot of money by planting a team of really smart organisational psychiatrists in CERN for a year and then packaging their insights.

How do you hope your documentary will have an impact?
I want people to realise that seeking to understand our world is a worthwhile pursuit, that saying that nothing “”practical” results from the discovery of the Higgs Boson is to miss the point entirely (we won’t know if there are “practical” implications or not for decades but we can be sure that understanding the make-up of the world better will lead to some sort of dramatic practical changes, it always has), and that CERN’s work on the most mind-bendingly complicated questions of our time is well worth funding.

If you can bring together this many countries in the pursuit of pure knowledge, maybe there is still some hope that we can come together for other things. It’s not that scientists are less petty than other people – it’s just that their working too hard to bicker and create political chaos. They just don’t have time.

Finally, anyone who cares about what we know of the world owes a huge debt of gratitude to the thousands of people whose names we will never know, without whose work these big science projects could never take place. The single-name discovery doesn’t happen in particle physics anymore. It took thousands of people to discover the Higgs Boson – and they were all over the moon when they did it. Even though they knew none of them would get the Nobel Prize.

Check out more of the CERN People series from Intelligent Channel.