by Polly Bennett. Published: 20 January 2012

Steve Elkins is a poet. Not a Byron-esque, musing by the lakeside sort of poet but a filmmaker with vision. As a slow kind of dance he brings together seemingly unconnected ideas to explore a central theme. He is currently swinging in a wide arc across the ALICE cavern space atop a cherry picker. With camera in hand he is filming the ALICE experiment as part of his latest feature film exploring the central questions: what is the nature of reality and how do we explore it? His crew members below are scurrying to and fro with microphones, cables and cameras, periodically stopping to marvel at the experiment lying open and exposed in front of them. The very process of filming seems to mirror the themes Steve is aiming to address.

David Marks

Steve Elkins (right) interviewing in the ATLAS control with room with crew member Ben

ALICE and the other experiments at CERN are just one element of the film, in which the central question will be explored using the juxtapositions of macro vs micro and ancient culture vs modern technology. The idea is convoluted but Steve later explains the process that inspired him to make this film. “A few years ago I visited the Very Large Array in New Mexico. While I was looking at the radio astronomy antennas in this field my friend was telling me about the LHC and CERN, which I wasn’t aware existed at the time. Immediately in my head I was struck by the juxtaposition between these objects, meant to study the largest imaginable things in the cosmos, and this enormous machine in Switzerland designed to study the smallest imaginable things. Then I started to think about these technicians at the Very Large Array who live out here in the middle of nowhere for most of the year in a very solitary existence. This is just so they can lay tracks to move the antennas around for the scientists. These technicians never really see what it is the antennas are looking at, but if it wasn’t for their incredible mechanical undertaking people wouldn’t be able to study the universe. In my head I then made this connection with, and bear with me here, these Buddhist monks I had seen a few years ago. They use their bodies to bow their way across the Himalayas in another insane bodily undertaking. I felt the technicians laying tracks for months and months and the monks bowing step by step on their pilgrimage were addressing similar questions. They’re both just trying to gain a greater understanding of the larger context in which we live, whether this is through studying the universe or the human mind or the nature of reality. And right there I decided that’s what I wanted to make a film about.”

Steve’s purpose for coming to CERN is to represent people who have devoted their lives to studying the smallest imaginable things, while the other end of the spectrum is explored at the radio astronomy Alma Project in Chile. In terms of the other juxtaposition CERN will represent the use of huge and complex machines such as ALICE to study these things, while Buddhist monks and Tuvan throat singers will represent the antithesis. “I like the idea that there are these ancient traditions still practiced today, where people use their bodies to address the same questions you’re now using this incredible technology to address.”

David Marks

From left: Kathryn (CERN Press Office) and the film crew: Rebecca, Steve, Ben & David

Steve has taken some time to explain his ideas and how he came to make the connections suggesting the editing challenge will be enormous. “That’s part of what excites me about it. It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle and you have to put the pieces together just right. I think it’ll be a fun challenge.” This film will loosely follow the structure of his last feature, in which unusual juxtapositions around the theme of music were bound together in a non-traditional, non-linear narrative format. David Marks, Steve’s producer, explains further, “we made the analogy with the last film that you start from a certain point and are kind of speaking around the central topic, which in this case was music. As you speak you’re sort of spiralling inward until you get to the very central point where you can see that all these things you’ve been talking about are connected. I guess that will also be the approach taken with this film.”

Steve adds, “It might seem a little jarring at first to jump from ALICE to Buddhist monks to radio astronomy to Tuvan throat singers, also to neuroscience, but hopefully these separate elements will connect once you get further in.”

As an example of the connections, Steve talks about the similarities between Tuvan throat singers and particle physicists. Tuvan throat singers use their throat to carve a note into its smaller and smaller subharmonics. By doing so they also believe they are carving matter into its smaller and smaller sub-components. They aim to get at the smallest thing out there. “They don’t know what this is, but to them it’s a question of addressing what is at the root of all things, and how do these things interact with each other? And they use their body, their throat to do this. It’s a ring, just a different one to the 27 km ring here.”

David Marks

Steve filming ALICE

Steve adds a disclaimer. “I don’t want this film to come across as being a ‘science’ film per se, despite the fact I’m filming lots of different science projects. I’m interested in capturing the kind of emotion and journey that different people have to go through to address the central theme. I don’t think I’m going to attempt answers to the questions raised, it’s really more about the diversity of routes than the destination. By filming ALICE and the other CERN experiments I hope to represent as well rounded a picture as possible of the diversity and scale of the undertaking here.”

Steve’s last film ‘The Reach of Resonance’ can be explored at: www.reachofresonance.com

You can also visit his website at: www.steveelkins.net

Comments

You Guys Rock!

Jealous but so inspired by what you've done....this thing will be epic!!! I owe you all beers!