[Review] - Particle Fever

Courtesy of Anthos Media
It is possible to tell the story of the toaster without ever having to tell the story of bread. This is not that story. Mark Levinson's multi-year story of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and the ensuing series of set-ups, set-backs and eventual successful experiments that were carried out by the physicists working at the facility are different acts in the same story. And it is an engrossing story. As David Kaplan, one the film's subjects, explains early on, the building of the LHC is an endeavor to discover fundamental truths about the universe, with no strategic or immediate result other than knowledge. Therefore, to tell just the story of it's construction would be to tell only half the story.

Happily, this documentary of the facility's early operations in 2007 until the announcement of the confirmation of the Higgs Boson in 2012, tells the story wonderfully and completely (to a point). It also manages that rare feat of presenting both the theoretical physics and the practical engineering in terms that are easily understood by the layperson, while not dumbing the subject matter down to the extent that the media so often does (the infrequent reminders of the phrase "God Particle" elicited laughs from the audience every time).

Hit the jump for the brief review.


The film begins in 2007, with the installation of the LHC, and immediately splits between two narratives: the theoretical physicists who create the predictive models that attempt to explain the universe; and the experimental physicists working at the facility underneath the Franco–Swiss border. The two camps, which present a healthy rivalry/indignation towards each other, are the tool by which the film is able to present the "quest" for the Higgs Boson in a very streamlined and human way. Particle physics can be a very abstract and inaccessible discipline, so structuring the film around the emotional lives of the people deeply involved in this science prevents the film from being a lecture and turns it into a narrative adventure. The 30 veteran whose entire life's work is being threatened with irrelevancy; the enthusiastic and youthful ingenue just starting out in the field; the researchers who use the same data to describe competing theories. These are people we can care for, and through them, we can care about the science.

It helps that the science is really cool. Really cool. The LHC's method for detection is the now famous particle acceleration and collision. Using supercooled, high-powered magnets, a beam of protons is sped up to nearly the speed of light around the 27 km ring, then allowed to smash into each other, thus recreating the moments just after the Big Bang. There are four experiments running at LHC, with the film focusing on the ATLAS project, who are the ones that announced in 2012 (and at the film's conclusion) that they had detected the Higgs Boson.

For the theoretical scientists, the time in between when the facility went online and when the results are announced is a time for introspection. So long as the Higgs remains theoretical, the models are incomplete, but the model can be extrapolated into a number of different scenarios (the film focuses on Kaplan's study of Super Symmetry, and Nima Arkani-Hamed's preference for a multiverse). Once the Higgs is defined, then has the potential to eliminate entire models from contention. The data will only support certain theories. This means that some of these researchers are working in areas that will eventually become irrelevant. And no one wants their discipline to be the one debunked. For the theorists, the film is an emotional journey. For the experimental scientists, it's a problem of engineering. LHC suffered a catastrophic failure in 2008, which shut the project down for nearly two years. They also have to wade through the quagmire of the modern media environment, who demand interactive results, immediate analysis and a narrative thread in what is little more than ceremony.

The scenes that most touched me were those where the scientists were forced to make conciliation in the name of public access. The pure and honest search for knowledge, with no obvious economic upshot, commandeered by the flash mob. Science needs the public interest, and the public need scientific discovery. But to see the providers hampered in anyway by the demands of a instant-gratification system hurts. As one CERN researchers explains it, their preferred way of operating would be to do the experiment in solitude, gather the result when there are some, and present it to the public when everything is ready. As one of the theoretical scientist says, it's a mistake to throw a party before the first piece of data comes in. In the end, the film is swift, intelligent without being pretentious or smug, very funny, and uplifting.And it's damned good science, which is the best thing of all.

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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