Filming failure

It’s not how I usually start the day, but on Thursday I had breakfast at Google. I’d been invited to the launch of CERNPeople (, an initiative of Roger Graef, CEO of Films of Record. Graef is receiving support from Google and a number of other organisations, including the Irish Film Board and the BBC, for a new documentary film project.

Graef described the ‘double epiphany’ that led to this collaboration. Firstly, he suddenly saw that filmmakers are content providers, not broadcasters, and they can provide content for any distribution platform. Secondly, he realised that he is not alone in not understanding what’s going on at CERN – even the scientists don’t understand the stuff! These thoughts emboldened Graef to seek access for what everyone expects to be the year of discovery inGeneva. Graef will have access to all the experiments at CERN and plans to make a series of short films throughout the year that will eventually be compiled into a long-form documentary when it’s finally all over – ‘all’ meaning the discovery (or not) of the Higgs particle.

Normally a filmmaker like Roger Graef would seek a commission from, say, the BBC but in this case, with the outcome of the year’s experiments necessarily uncertain, no broadcasters was willing to put up the money in advance. The beauty of CERNPeople is that relatively little seed money is needed for the filmmakers to get started and Google has provided it. Each short film will be hosted on YouTube and supported by a Google+ page and by ‘hangouts’(a cross between a chatroom and a video conference). The hope is that as time passes an audience for the project will develop. People will watch the growing collection of video clips and take to ‘hanging-out’ with scientists and filmmakers in the online Google environment. Evidence of this anticipated popularity will allow Films of Record to raise new funds and keep filming, capturing events as they happen and amassing material that will eventually be edited into a more traditional long-form documentary about (it is hoped) the discovery of the century .  

Graef is the executive producer of CERNPeople with Liz Mermin producing and directing the films. Like Graef, Mermin’s background is in anthropological filmmaking and she aims to deliver a strong sense of what it is like to be a scientist. This means we will be shown the ups and downs, the disappointments, the exhaustion and the moments of elation that the scientists experience. Graef told us that of all his work he is most proud of Malaria: Fever Road and Vaccine Challenge, a pair of films about the struggle to find a cure for malaria. He is proud, he said, because these films tell the story of scientific failure. As any viewer of Horizon knows, unless they are precursors to Whiggish histories of success, stories of scientific failure rarely make it onto our screens. And yet, failure is the common experience of scientists.

According to Karl Popper, failure lies at the heart of the scientific method and, as Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos describe, it animates the strategies and politics of scientific research. The Kuhnian ‘anomaly’ that is the continuing no-show of the Higgs particle is an apparent failure of the Standard Model. Yet, as Lakatos describes, scientists explain away this otherwise falsifying absence by arguing they just haven’t found it yet. It will be fascinating, therefore, to see if Graef’s project demonstrates how scientists continue to cope should the Higgs fail to turn up. More generally, it will be interesting to see whether an ‘anthropological’ approach to the science documentary might reveal those social dynamics of discovery that Kuhn, Lakatos and others have theorised for sixty years now, the same length of time that physicist have been looking for the Higgs.

 Dr Robert Sternberg runs the MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London.