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A visit to CERN

Added on by James Lawler.

I recently visited CERN for the Cineglobe Film Festival, where Eden 2045 premiered as part of the short film program.    

This is the structure that the festival turned into a theater.  It's a beautiful wooden dome with a slow-ascent twisting walkway within.  

This is the structure that the festival turned into a theater.  It's a beautiful wooden dome with a slow-ascent twisting walkway within.  

I was vaguely aware of the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 at CERN (which stands for The European Center for Nuclear Research).  The Higgs is the so-called "God Particle" that bestows mass on the matter that fills the universe, and it was the last of the particles predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics to be experimentally verified.  Before visiting, I knew next to nothing about CERN - only that there was something called the Large Hadron Collider there - a set of vast circular tubes that stretch in a massive loop underground beneath Geneva, where subatomic particles collide at high speed.  In my mind's eye I imagined a gleaming facility, with steel and glass buildings, multiple layers of security, and solitary scientists.  

Arriving at reception, I was given a map to help me find the on-site hostel where I would be staying for the next few days.  The building numbers reached into the hundreds, and they seemed to be bunched together in clusters, practically on top of one another - with no logic to their organization.  Walking through them to find the hostel was like moving through a maze. But it wasn't a maze of high-tech wonder.  Most of the buildings looked like this:

Construction at CERN began 60 years ago, as part of an international effort to probe deeper into the fundamental nature of matter than ever before.  Many of the structures on the premises are original.  The interiors feel ancient - with dark, narrow passageways and offices cluttered with yellowing papers.   The most sophisticated laboratory with some of the most brilliant minds on earth feels like a sort of coral reef - with no central organizing principle,  no logical layout to define it, with the new built on top of and around the old.

I had the chance to go underground and see the facility's pièce-de-résistance, the ATLAS experiment.  In ATLAS, the two parallel proton-carrying tubes that run through the LHC's underground loops converge, and the clusters slam into each other, breaking violently apart. The particles the collisions produce scatter through the walls of the ATLAS experiment, where they hit a variety of cylindrical layers - each of which reacts to particles of different mass and energy.   By running the experiment many times, and plotting the distributions of masses and energies that the detectors report, physicists are able to infer the identities of these particles.   When the experiment indicated that the detectors were "seeing" a particle of a mass that had not been observed experimentally before, and this matched the predictions of the Standard Model, they knew they had found the Higgs. 

Inside the ATLAS experiment, 100 meters beneath the surface.

Inside the ATLAS experiment, 100 meters beneath the surface.

To me, the most remarkable takeaways from ATLAS - aside from the obvious ones, like its massive size (it is the largest and most complex machine built by man, standing seven-stories tall and weighing as much as the Eiffel Tower), are the method of its construction and the fact that it works at all.  For ATLAS to detect the particles from the collisions, it had to be engineered very precisely - down to the micron.  A micron is one millionth of a meter - a tenth of the width of a human hair. To create a machine of such gargantuan size - at that level of precision - is a magical feat.  To compound it, consider the fact that ATLAS was not built by a single team under the direction of one individual.  It was built by committees of scientists in nearly 20 different countries - some of which were at war with one another.  And yet, somehow, all these people came together in the pursuit of pure scientific discovery.  The knowledge that the Higgs boson exists has absolutely no direct economic value.  It will not power cars or take the carbon out of the air.   But the buildings themselves seem to tell the story of how it came to be.  It was a slow, yet relentless, non-hierarchical and intensively collaborative, endlessly frustrating progression - a sequence of never-ending problems to be solved.   They solved them, one by one, until one day - nearly 30 years after they first broke ground outside Geneva - a cluster of protons collided at light speed, and we reproduced the Big Bang, in miniature, on earth. 


I Remember Mama - at The Gym at Judson in NYC

Added on by James Lawler.

The set in Jack Cummings III interpretation of John Van Druten's play I Remember Mama consists of seven tables, each decorated with an array of a particular species of nostalgic memorabilia.   One is adorned with old classic books - like "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Hound of the Baskervilles".  Another is covered with typewriters.  Another with small decorative jewelry boxes.  

The set of "I Remember Mama".  Written by John Van Druten.  Directed by Jack Cummings III.  

The set of "I Remember Mama".  Written by John Van Druten.  Directed by Jack Cummings III.  

The story of the play concerns the history of an extended family of Swedish emigrés living in San Francisco.  Most of the action takes place in the early 1940s.  The story is recounted from the perspective of one of the family's daughters, Katrin - "the dramatic one" - as she's called by her mother, the "Mama" in the play's title.  Katrin is an aspiring writer - and the play itself turns out to be the product of her writing - a collection of short stories recounting memories of growing up. The play moves back and forth in time - with Katrin's frequent narration that blends and occasionally transcends the boundaries of time to interact with the other characters in her past.

The stories are simple, and heartwarming, and yet their accretive power is unexpectedly strong.  Ten actresses - all of them superb - play the 25 roles, both male and female, young and old.  The staging of the play is genius.  The theater - a rectangular gymnasium space - has only two rows of audience seats, arranged around the perimeter.  The obvious challenge is how to define the spaces in the play - such as the family's house, a hospital, a ranch home, and others - in such a way that all sides of the room are equally exposed to the action.  Cummings solves this using the table idea, with dramatic spaces defined elastically - so you sometimes have a character at one table talking to a character standing or seated at another across the room - and the audience's imagination fills in the gaps.  We immediately understand that one table represents downstairs, another upstairs; one is the dining room table, another is a hospital reception desk, and so on.  Scenes are distributed around the room - one scene might take place in one corner, and the next in the opposite.   But it's never random.  The actors are always in motion, distributing the action of the play evenly around the stage.  A key theme of the play is memory - what we remember and how our memories connect, one to the next - and the staging represents that process in Katrin's mind brilliantly.  Just as our memories of childhood transcend time and space, swinging by faint associations, so too does the action on stage - moving spanning distances near and far, launched by one character and setting to the next.

In the final scene, when Katrin receives a letter notifying her that she has sold her story to a magazine for the whopping sum of $500, her family assembles around the center table to hear her read it aloud.  As she reads, and as we hear the names of her family read one by one, they rise in turn from their chairs, and recede into darkness, to the positions they each held at the opening of the play.  Until the only other person at the center table besides Katrin is Mama herself - and finally, she too disappears, receding into shadow.  As the lights slowly extinguished around the room, with only Katrin remaining at the central table, much of the audience had tears in their eyes.  It's impossible not to connect with the idea depicted in that final moment - the idea that memory, like the passage of an event, or a life itself - has a terribly tragic, fleeting quality - a person who may have meant everything to you, as we understand "Mama" did to Katrin will be there one instant, gone the next, like everything else in life.  But the memory remains real, powerful, and recurring.

Eden 2045 to premiere at Cineglobe

Added on by James Lawler.

Eden 2045 was accepted to premiere at the Cineglobe Film Festival outside CERN in Switzerland.  The festival runs from March 18 - 24.  Here's a list of the selected films, and more about the festival:

"Situated just outside Geneva, Switzerland, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) is the world’s largest physics laboratory. From the 18th to the 23rd of March, 2014, CERN will host the fourth edition of the festival.

Open to short film creators from around the world, the CinéGlobe festival is truly international, the first three editions having attracted more than 4000 entries from more than 100 countries around the globe. Thanks to the strong cultural commitment of CERN and the city of Meyrin (where CERN is located), the CineGlobe festival is poised to become one of the most important festivals worldwide for films surrounding the themes of science and technology."