At this year’s Cambridge Film Festival Toby Miller hosted a conversation with Mark Levinson (director of PARTICLE FEVER, about the Large Hadron Collider) and Manoug Manougian (scientist featured in THE LEBANESE ROCKET SOCIETY).
Mark Levinson: Now that I’ve seen THE LEBANESE ROCKET SOCIETY I can see both our films are about imagination and the human endeavour and inspiration.
Manoug Manougian: I was thoroughly enthralled by the effect this film [PARTICLE FEVER] has on the general public as well as students. And one other thing that impressed me about your film is the fact it brought out the influence of discoveries in the sciences. Einstein came along and talked about his Theory of Relativity and the general public assumed, “Alright, now we know everything that needs to be known about science” and so on, and yes, this was a major breakthrough, but I think more importantly your film ends by pointing out there is still so much to more to do. The LHC [Large Hadron Collider] is opening doors for scientists to deepen their understand of what science is all about, how physics is used in interpreting nature, and to interpreting the universe; and in a way the work that goes on there affects all of us as human beings. That was brought out in the film very powerfully.
ML: That’s great to hear, it was definitely a goal for us, I think in some sense for David [Kaplan – PARTICLE FEVER producer and physicist ] and me, the idea of really depicting the scientific community in a realistic way was
absolutely essential. Interestingly, after the first rough cut screenings a number of people came up to us and said, “Wow, these guys, they’re like normal people”. It was shocking that there’s a large number of people out there who think scientists are not normal people, that they’re egotistical, or they’re supercilious, or that there’s something about them that makes them abnormal. But they’re not that way, yes there are people with egos, but there are people with egos in every field. We were blessed because I think we had some of the really great characters for the film, and that’s a very, very important element of why it works so well.
“Could a non-scientist have made Particle Fever?”
MM: I liked that you took this young scientist who was immersed in her experiments, but at the same time to show her as someone who is riding a bicycle for example, or running a mile – even eating her breakfast like the rest of us do – that put a human face to a scientist, and that was again a very powerful message to the public: that’s who the physicists, the engineers, the mathematicians and the scientists are. It was absolutely beautifully done.
ML: Thank you. Somebody asked me, “Could a non-scientist have made PARTICLE FEVER?”. Ironically, I don’t know if a non-scientist would have captured the humanity as much, because they would get overwhelmed by the science; they
think they have to understand it, they think they have to explain it. For David and I, we were already comfortable with that aspect so it allowed us to concentrate on the story we wanted to tell. I moved into filmmaking partly to convey the human stories. I still think that physics is a phenomenal thing, it needs support.
“Going to the moon was important in itself, but it was more than that.”
MM: And it’s the right time to do it too, incidentally. Back in the 1960s President Kennedy took it upon himself to say, “It’s time for us to lead our nation in the sciences, and to lead our nation to be the first to go to the moon.” Going to the moon was important in itself, but it was more than that. It encouraged the public to get into the sciences and it eloped highlight that as human beings living on this planet, science is an important part of our education and our ability to live with one another. Again, this is something you brought up in your film.
So that happened back in the 60s and then what happened – somehow, nations of the world (and I’m not saying only in America) seemed to have stayed away from the sciences for a period of time. And I strongly believe what your film is going to help people recognise what science is all about and its importance. This one particular experiment I think it’s going to open the eyes of many in the world to the possibilities of science, and for that I’m very thankful. I’m an educator, and I want my students to understand the sciences and the influence of science, and the influence of the methodology of science; and I can’t wait until I get a copy of your film to screen for them… [both laugh]
ML: Well that’s great. I’m so glad that you did get a chance to see it, and that I got a chance to see Rocket Society. Your film shows the effect of science and imagination and art on society, which I think is very, very important; and I think that question which is raised in THE LEBANESE ROCKET SOCIETY is a very nice counterpart to PARTICLE FEVER. Our film shows the process, and it tries to get you excited about it, and that was exactly what was behind you starting the Society in the 1960s. And your film raises the question of what might have happened if the Rocket Society hadn’t stopped. We can hope that things in the area might be different, in that there is an enlightening to science and art that are important as human endeavours, and when you stop that, you get subsumed with trivialities that lead to war and battles.
“the general public assumed that you had to be a powerful country before you can launch a rocket…”
MM: That was one of the important aspects in my project in Lebanon. Yes, they were experiments at a very low level of science – but what it did was generate an interest among the students, who recognised the fact that this was something they can do. The general public assumed that you had to be a powerful country before you can launch a rocket, and yet here we are, young 20-year-olds, who are able to do what the major powers to some degree were doing. More importantly, the country of Lebanon looked at us as young kids who were willing to take on scientific ventures and adventures. It wasn’t until towards the end of the project that [they recognised] that rockets in the Middle East have other possibilities. Suddenly there were the possibilities of a rocket being used for war purposes as opposed to simply scientific experimentation, and at that point it was important to make it known not only to the Lebanese themselves but to the world that this is not what we were about, and this is not what science is about. If people misuse science, it’s up to the scientists to make it known to the public that there are good sides to the science.
To me, the adventure was absolutely something I would die for. It was wonderful to see how students reacted to a successbut it was also very important for me to see how students reacted to a failure. We had several failures before we arrived at the point where we could launch a rocket that can be viewed as, “yes, this is a real rocket that has been launched”. The fact that we’ve had these failures did not deter the students, but rather it made them work harder to achieve a success. To me, that was very important; to see students persevering and continuing their work towards a success. It was a journey that I thoroughly enjoyed to go through.
ML: For me what was great was that what you were doing was a compression in a sense of the whole scientific process. You set yourself a challenge to launch a rocket and had to discover and then overcome the innumerable obstacles that were in your way. There is something about humans who find that process so rewarding, it gets to our essence, that we can solve problems and use ingenuity to progress and develop things. I’m a scientist, I in some sense know what’s involved in sending a rocket off, but you have to start from zero essentially, with “I want to build a rocket, what does that mean?”. It gave even me a greater appreciation for what that really means. You’re a scientist, and you said our film was revealing to you about the process; and I felt the same, I felt “Wow, that’s true”. I mean, what is a propellant? That’s a complex thing, to come up with something to get it to work, why doesn’t it just explode, how do you do a casing, how do you guide it? Something that we take for granted now is actually a miracle of human achievement and ingenuity.
“You’re studying something that’s essentially invisible […] this is phenomenal, really.”
I think the work of the LHC is at the outer reaches of what we know and understand, something people don’t even realise. We’re so expectant that science and technology can just solve anything with equipment, and here is the LHC, and some of the greatest minds in the world, and when they had an accident and people say “What happened?” the reply can be “we don’t yet know, we’re dealing with the unknown!” These scientists are dealing with issues that nobody could even anticipate, but the fact that we got there, it’s really remarkable, even our physicists say that. You’re studying something that’s essentially invisible, you’re making theoretical calculations, this is phenomenal, really. The Higgs field is something Peter Higgs invented mathematically for pure mathematical reasons, it was just scribbling, what does this have to do with anything? Then 50 years later they build this machine, dealing with things you can’t ever see, but it’s consistent in a certain way that it actually proves it, wow.
MM: I think your movie gave a good example of radio waves and the public’s general reaction to it – so what, now you have radio waves that were not called radio waves at the time – but as a result of the discovery we have radios now, we have television and so on, so you never know where a discovery is going to lead you; and that was an important message that your movie gave.
But going back to why [I started] a rocket project, of all places in a place like Lebanon where conflict is persistent. I’m teaching math and physics, while at the same time we have the major powers in the world fighting over control of space. In teaching physics, you want to relate physics to something that is happening in the world, so I figured what better way to teach students the methods of science than through something that was very current. [At] the time, newspaper articles were going wild about [the] Soviet and American space race, so why not use that as an example of how you can apply science, not to fight over, but rather join and contribute to science in one way or another? To do that you had to understand the engineering aspects of it, the chemistry of it, the mathematics of it; you had to understand the physics of it.
UNESCO was created specifically to unify these divided countries in the peaceful pursuit of science.
And it is a perfect lesson in collaboration to have a science where all these different fields are going to be used at the same time to perform an experiment? So they had to be engineers, they had to be chemists, they had to be physicists, they had to be mathematicians, they had to understand all four disciplines to be able to put a rocket together and make it fly. That was one thing they learned, and that was one of the driving forces for me, to do that and encourage students to participate in it.
ML: That’s a perfect example of the collaborative aspect of science. The LHC is also an example; there’s ten thousand scientists co-operating on this. There’s really nobody that understands it all, it’s another aspect of human accomplishment that we can collaborate on something like that and we have to bring in all these individual disciplines. CERN was an outgrowth of UNESCO, it was created in the 50s with the specific plan that it would be a unification of these divided countries in the peaceful pursuit of science, and the mandate was always for countries to collaborate, no military research, and that everything is public. When I was over there on one of the shoots, coincidentally, there was a retirees’ dinner that I went to, and I met somebody who had been at CERN in the late 50s when it started. He was French, and he was saying that initially it was a bunch of barracks there, basically, and they never thought it was going to be what it is, but he said it was very odd because from one year to the next suddenly you were collaborating with Germans and people that had been your enemies. You have to remember that the World Wide Web was designed there and is free because it’s at CERN, and they don’t charge for knowledge, is fundamental and unifying.
MM: Our two movies have a common message too, in the sense that the students who participated in the Lebanese Rocket Society came from different parts of the Middle East, they came from Jerusalem, they came from Jordan, they came from Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and they all worked together in a peaceful manner – and your movie also shows exactly that at CERN. It shows how international a collaboration that was, that scientists from countries that are at war with one another can get together and pursue the advancement of science. You emphasised the fact that even scientists who belong to warring countries can get together and work together in a peaceful manner. I think that’s an important message that can be sent to the world in general, that peace can be promoted through science, and I saw that among my students there was no difference between students who were from Jordan, or from Jerusalem, or from Syria, or Lebanon – they saw each other as human beings and worked on a project together with no conflict, and that was a delight to see, and as one who believes in peaceful coexistence, and science provided me with that, was a gift I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
“Maybe we ought to promote science and the arts in the hope of providing peace in the world?”
ML: The university that it was at, was there a specific reason, was that a magnet for other people besides just Lebanese?
MM: It was a very small Armenian-funded college, a liberal arts college. Primarily it was created to address the problem of refugees from the Armenian massacres that took place at the beginning of last century who were given a safe haven in the Lebanon. But [the college] attracted students from all over the Middle East.
ML: It is interesting the role of refugees, and the freedom that entails, with science. Do you think there is some connection, in a very fundamental cultural way, to exploration?
MM: I think it simply brings out the fact that in general, human beings are more than happy to work with one another, especially in science and the arts. These two disciplines are such that they will attract people of different backgrounds, different religions, different nationalities, and they help break the boundaries that exist as a result of religion, of geography, and nationality. Maybe we ought to promote science and the arts more than we do in the hope of providing peace in the world? I think indirectly both of our films indicate the possibility of this happening; you brought this out very clearly: scientists came from all over the world and they worked harmoniously with one another; my students came from different parts of the Middle East and yet they were able to work together in harmony. In both cases they were successful in achieving what they set out for themselves to do. There were failures, but that didn’t stop them – they continued.
ML: I think they could not have done it otherwise. A lot of people say is that probably it will never happen again that a single country could do something in the manner of the LHC. From now on, the scale, in costs and in manpower – there’s no country that could support it; it’s something that would need international collaborations. The LHC was also an important indicator of that, there’s a lot of people I think that feel that one of the reasons the SSC [Superconducting Super Collider] was cancelled was because it was very much a US project, which made it possibly vulnerable, you had to depend on continued support from the US government. So in that sense the international collaboration aspect protects you a little bit; you hope that not every country will suddenly decide not to support science. There was actually a little episode where Austria was threatening to withdraw from CERN at a certain point and there was such an outraged reaction to that they said “No no no, of course we’re not going to do that”. To not participate would be to not be involved in the absolute limits and cutting edge of science.
MM: I’m very pleased with the fact that the filmmakers of THE LEBANESE ROCKET SOCIETY managed to do exactly that, to show a relationship between art and science to the point where they actually replicated an exact replica of one of the rockets and converted it into an art piece. It’s showing right now at the art museum in Sharjah which is in the United Arab Emirates. At the entrance to the museum is this huge 22-foot rocket, painted in white, emphasising the scientific nature of this project as opposed to it being a war instrument and they managed to do that very well and they ended the film by showing how you can turn this into a museum for promoting the sciences and encouraging the young generation to pursue science.
“I’m very afraid that there seems to be an element that doesn’t believe in climate change, it doesn’t believe in science…”
ML: The idea of iconising this rocket and just creating the outside shell was a great idea. You see the rocket in a different way. And the LHC, this technological thing, is a beautiful object, it’s amazing, it has symmetry (for very different considerations). People have asked “Wow, it’s so beautiful, did they paint it certain ways?” And no, there’s magnets, and they have certain colours, but there is an absolute artistic element, you look at this thing and it is stunning, it’s its own encapsulation of art and science at a grand scale. At CERN they’re very aware of this and there’s a woman who has started this arts initiative called Collide@CERN. Every year an artist is chosen to spend time at the facility, to get to know the scientists and just be inspired to create something. I think it’s a great idea to have this sort of cross fertilisation. It’s a wonderful overlap.
Toby Miller: To change subject slightly, you’ve been talking about the challenge of making science more approachable for the general public – and that’s been slightly achieved, as has been proved at this festival with HAWKING. But is it now more of a challenge having to convince governments of the importance of science? Canada has slashed a lot of its science budget, Australia looks like it’s going to, and it’s not so simply a problem of austerity, it’s a problem of ideology. Is that an unexpected challenge – a front you didn’t think you’d have to be fighting?
ML: We’ve always had to fight it, it’s always been a struggle. But it is a dangerous time and I’m very happy that the film is coming out right now because in the US as well as these other countries there are big cuts that are happening in science. In the US I’m very afraid that there seems to be an anti-science element that’s coming, that doesn’t believe in climate change, it doesn’t believe in science, so I think it is important that a film like PARTICLE FEVER, that extols the
scientific process and gives respect to science, can be made.
“We have to devote time to things that have no overt applications, because that’s what opens us up as human beings…”
MM: I think especially in the US you have two groups of people – the one you spoke do prefer not to get involved in funding science projects, but there is a very strong move on the part of the government right now to place whatever funds they have into science education. The term now is STEM education – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – and most of the funding is going into that, maybe at the expense of the arts by the way. At our university many of the arts are suffering, whereas STEM education now I have a huge office. At one point I had an office that included just one room – today I have an office that is much larger than this [10-foot long room] plus a conference room adjacent to it plus a secretary across the hall with another office because I am director of STEM education. I certainly don’t want the arts to suffer in the process but I’m glad they recognise the importance of science education because that’s been lacking, especially in the US, for many years now. It was very well funded in the past, back in the 60s and 70s, then it simply died out. But it has again been recognised as an important part of educating the public and the younger generation.
ML: That’s true, I’m in a sort of divided position because I feel I do straddle the two worlds, indeed if anything I’m more in the film/art world. But making this film reminds me that we have a struggle with science education so I’m very happy about STEM, but I also agree, I don’t want the arts to suffer either, these are things that need to be supported as basic human values, there are practical things that need to be attended to of course, but we have to devote time to things that have no overt applications, because that’s what opens us up as human beings – I remember as a grad student I felt sorry for people in the humanities because as a grad student in the sciences you can get an RA [Research Assistant position] and they don’t get RAs. There’s a new iteration called STEAM, is A the arts? Have you heard this term?
MM: No, it hasn’t reached Florida yet.
ML: You’re in a particularly difficult state.
MM: That we are, education is not a priority in the state. It’s not too bad at the moment because the Governor is supposed to run for another term and he wants to please the education segment of society, but in general funding is not that great, but as I said it’s greater in the sciences than in the arts, and for that I’m grateful that there is an emphasis put on science education. But I’ve not heard of STEAM.
ML: I’ve been hearing that term from a couple of people. But the great thing for me is talking to people after they see PARTICLE FEVER – there’s a woman who saw the film last night at the Festival [Cambridge Film Festival 2013], she introduced herself as coming to the end of a good career as a linguist, but seeing the film made her want to go back and be a physicist and start again. That’s the excitement we wanted to capture with the film and it’s a great response to hear.