A day with particles

17 February 2021

A day with particles, screened at GeekFestToronto, and directed by Vojtech Pleskot, Martin Rybar and Daniel Scheirich

A day with particles
Not pocket-sized A still shot of Daniel Scheirich's art from A day with particles. Credit: V Plesko, M Rybar and D Scheirich

Outreach must continue, even in a pandemic: if visitors can’t come to the lab, we need to find ways to bring the lab to them. Few outreach initiatives do this as charmingly as “A day with particles” — a short independent film by three ATLAS physicists at Charles University in Prague. Mixing hand-drawn animations, deft sound design and a brisk script targeted at viewers with no knowledge of physics, the 30 minute film follows a day in the life of postdoc Vojtech Pleskot. In its latest pitstop in a worldwide tour of indie film festivals, it won “BEST of FEST (Top Geek)” last week at GeekFestToronto.

We want to break stereotypes about scientists

Vojtech Pleskot

“We just want to show that scientists are absolutely normal people, and that no one needs to fear them,” says Pleskot, who wrote and directed the film alongside producer Martin Rybar and animator Daniel Scheirich. Modest and self-effacing when I interviewed them, the three physicists produced the film with no funding and no prior expertise, beating off competition from well funded projects to win the Canadian award. Even within the vibrant but specialist niche of high-energy-physics geekery, competition included “The world of thinking”, featuring interviews with Ed Witten, Freeman Dyson and others, and a professionally produced film dramatising a love letter from Richard Feynman to his late wife Arline, who passed away while he was working on the Manhattan Project. But Pleskot, Rybar and Scheirich won the judges over with their idiosyncratic distillation of life at the rock-face of discovery. The trio place their film in the context of growing scepticism of science and scientists. “We want to break stereotypes about scientists,” adds Pleskot.

Not every stereotype is broken, and there is room to quibble about some of the details, but grassroots projects such as A Day With Particles boast a quirky authenticity which is difficult to capture through institutional planning, and is well placed to connect emotionally with non-physicists. The film is beautifully paced. Wide-eyed enthusiasm for physics cuts to an adorable glimpse of Pleskot’s two “cute little particles” having breakfast. A rapid hop from Democritus to Rutherford to the LHC cuts to tracking shots of Pleskot making his way through the streets of Prague to the university. The realities of phone conferences, failed grid jobs and being late for lab demonstrations are interwoven with a grad student dancing to discuss her analysis, conversations on free-diving with turtles and the stories of beloved professors recalling life in the communist era. Life as a physicist is good. And life as a physicist is really like this, they insist. “I hope that science communicators will share it far and wide,” says Connie Potter (CERN and ATLAS), who commissioned the film for the 2020 edition of ICHEP, and who was also recognised by the Toronto festival for her indefatigable “indie spirit” in promoting it.

A Day With Particles will next be considered at the World of Film International Festival in Glasgow in June, where it has been selected as a semi-finalist.

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