Unsolved Mysteries

A new IMAX movie offers a sweeping look at the largest machine ever built and the science behind one of the greatest mysteries of our time.

Manuel Calderón de la Barca Sánchez didn’t go into particle physics to be a movie star. But soon at an IMAX theater near you, the Mexican-born professor with a beaming smile will be your guide and narrator to Secrets of the Universe, a journey to the far edges of knowledge where scientists like Calderón de la Barca Sánchez and his students are using the largest and most complex machine ever built to probe the strongest forces in nature at the tiniest of scales.

Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said he hopes the film will excite, inspire and engage audiences, especially children, and increase support for basic science.

“There’s this curiosity we have as kids; we want to make sure that’s still alive,” he said.

The film follows Calderón de la Barca Sánchez and colleagues, including UC Davis graduate students Graham Waegel, Jared Jay, Ota Kukral and Santona Tuli, while they run experiments using the Compact Muon Solenoid detector, part of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. They are trying to create a state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma by smashing nuclei of lead atoms into each other.

“In a nutshell we’re trying to recreate a state of matter that existed about a microsecond after the Big Bang,” he said.

Manuel Calderón de la Barca Sánchez

Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis

Releasing enormous energies on a tiny scale, these collisions melt protons into the smaller particles that make them up, called quarks, and particles called gluons that hold quarks together.

“What we are trying to do is heat up matter such that we are able to study things that are inside protons and neutrons, so we can see how quarks and gluons acted at the time of creation,” Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said.

Melting a proton requires enormously high temperatures — a hundred thousand times that of the core of the sun, but on a tiny scale. That can only be achieved with a couple of colliders in the world: CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.

Large format movie for large scale science

Calderón de la Barca Sánchez’s involvement with Secrets of the Universe began about four years ago when he was approached to help write a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation.

“They asked, would you be interested in helping out with this? And I said, ‘where do I sign?’” he said.

They won the grant, with Calderón de la Barca Sánchez as a co-principal investigator and science advisor. Then came another four years of fundraising to get the movie into production. They won additional backing from the Canadian government and the Perimeter Institute, Ontario, as well as support from the National Science Teachers Association, Continental Development Corporation and the Richard Lounsberry Foundation. The project was greenlit in early 2018.

“Then I started talking to the director about what we might do with the film,” Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said.

“There’s this curiosity we have as kids; we want to make sure that’s still alive.”

— Manuel Calderón de la Barca Sánchez

They knew the focus would be on CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful accelerator ever built. Calderón de la Barca Sánchez and director Stephen Low considered a storyline on the Higgs boson, discovered at CERN in 2012, or the search for dark matter. But after many long hours talking physics on the phone, Low was having trouble figuring out how to make a movie on those topics that would resonate with audiences — especially children in middle school or younger.

“So I said, ‘let me tell you about what we do — we’re colliding the heaviest nuclei we can get our hands on, trying to create the hottest matter ever created to get close to one millionth of a second after the Big Bang, producing the highest number of particles ever.’ And he said, ‘that’s it; that sounds like a movie,’ so that’s where the focus went,” Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said.

Colliding heavy ions

For 11 months of the year during an experimental run, the Large Hadron Collider smashes streams of protons — nuclei of hydrogen atoms — into each other. But for one month, the collider is turned over to “heavy ion” experiments, accelerating and colliding streams of lead nuclei. These collisions cannot reach the same overall energy as proton-proton collisions, but because the nucleus of a lead atom has 82 protons and 126 neutrons, the result is a lot more individual collisions when two lead nuclei hit each other.

That mass of collisions allows the researchers to measure the thermodynamics of turning a proton into a soup of quarks and gluons. Calderón de la Barca Sánchez compares the process to studying water freezing or melting.

“If you want to study the transition from solid to liquid water, you would look at a lot of water molecules, not just one molecule,” he said.

The Compact Muon Solenoid, a five-story, 14,000 metric ton device, is one of four major detectors in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

Courtesy of CERN

Those collisions are detected with the Compact Muon Solenoid, a five-story, 14,000 metric ton device that is one of four major detectors in the Large Hadron Collider. The CMS is the primary experiment for U.S. researchers working at CERN. UC Davis physicists were among the first to sign on to the CMS experiment back in 1992 and have collaborated in designing and building the machine.

IMAX is the only film format that can capture the size of the detectors, Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said.

“If you can’t see the detectors in real life, the IMAX screen is about the right scale,” he said.

The compressed, one-month timescale of the heavy ion experiments was actually an advantage for the moviemakers. For a film aimed at children of middle school age or younger, the makers didn’t set out to explain the science in depth. Instead, Low aimed to capture the excitement and stress of scientific discovery.

“During that one month all the heavy ion people descend on CERN and everyone is very stressed. Every year something changes, and you don’t know if it’s going to work. So we wanted to catch some of that,” Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said.

“It’s an IMAX film; it has to be spectacular, but it has to be understandable by kids,” he said. “If you’re excited, they’ll get that.”

On location at CERN

The production crew spent about two weeks filming at CERN during the month of the heavy ion run. Because of the size of IMAX cameras and the nature of the format, this isn’t the kind of documentary where the camera follows subjects around at work or interviews talking heads. IMAX works better at capturing scale and spectacle, so the cameras concentrated on the enormous size of the detectors, along with people at work and some green screen effects.

“You’d come into work and find your office is now a stage presentation with cameras and lights set up and we’d do something for the cameras,” Waegel said.

What can a movie like this achieve? Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said he hopes it enthuses children about science, encourages them to pursue education and careers in STEM, and builds support for basic science.

Popular science shows are a common route to draw kids into science — certainly among physics graduate students.

“As a kid I guess my favorite show was NOVA,” Jay said. “At school I didn’t have any idea what to do; I liked chemistry, math, computers, biology. This one time I was talking to my sister about what I wanted to do and said I didn’t know, [that] I just wanted to understand everything. She said, ‘you should study physics.’”

“That’s what I tell a lot of my students,” added Calderón de la Barca Sánchez.

Superconducting magnets carry streams of particles around the 16-mile ring of the Large Hadron Collider at close to the speed of light.

© 2005 CERN

“I just came from being interested in science, watching TV and reading popular science books and also science fiction,” Waegel said. “I think that was a really big part of me just getting interested [in science] and seeing that this was a thing. Once you get an idea in there, it helps you get past the barriers to entry.”

Investment in basic science leads to public benefits in the future, Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said. For example, most of the world’s particle accelerators are in hospitals, used to treat cancer or in medical imaging. If you’re reading this on a computer, tablet or phone, that electronic device was made possible by quantum theory, laid out by Max Planck, Albert Einstein and others over a century ago.

“I hope that [the film] increases support for science, not just in physics but everywhere,” Calderón de la Barca Sánchez said.

Secrets of the Universe premiered at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., July 10. As of fall 2019, it was showing at the National Air and Space Museum; the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago; the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City;  and the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. More showings will be announced soon.

The producers are also working on a Spanish-language version, again narrated by Calderón de la Barca Sánchez.