Higher science and especially speculative physics dance beyond the reach of many ordinary folks, but the new documentary, Particle Fever, gives viewers a shotgun-seat to history that plays out on a very human, relatable plane. Director Mark Levinson’s movie—about the biggest experiment in the world, to recreate conditions immediately after the Big Bang—is a fascinating celebration of human curiosity and endeavor.
Originally conceived in the late 1980s, and tabbed for construction in Texas before legitimate funding concerns and a more generally disdainful attitude toward science on the part of the U.S. Congress scuttled its construction after ground was already broken, the Large Hadron Collider was designed and built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) over the course of almost two decades, with the collaboration of over 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries—including, as one interviewee points out, sworn enemies like India and Pakistan, and Israel and Iran. It is the largest machine ever built by humans, a phalanx of complex, interconnected scientific elements residing in an underground tunnel, roughly 17 miles in circumference, beneath the Franco-Swiss border.
The basic nature of the experiment, though, is readily graspable to anyone who’s ever witnessed or been a kid: take two things and smash them together. In this case, it’s a pair of high-energy proton beams, in an effort to confirm the reality of the hypothesized Higgs boson, a highly unstable elementary particle with no spin or electric charge.
The implications of both Higgs’ existence and specifically its mass factor heavily into what’s known as the Standard Model of physics. And what of the future applications of all this research? Unknown, as theoretical physicist David Kaplan happily explains to an accountant at a lecture for laypersons: unknown, but definitely amazing. It’s a moment of levity in the movie that connects because it’s easy to understand the social implications of something like, say, the eventual scientific validation of multi-verses (meaning, essentially, that accepted laws of physics hold true only in our galaxy, and would be different elsewhere).
Despite being a physicist turned filmmaker, of maybe because of it, Levinson has an intuitive sense of where and how to selectively bear down and focus on scientific fact and theory. It would be quite easy for a film of this nature to get lost in the weeds, or, conversely, for it to be massaged into a sort of grand physics mystery and thriller, where the outcome of its research findings was the big reveal. This type of movie could be engaging, and even decently satisfying to those who’d either never heard of the Hadron Collider or had no notion of how its research unfolded.
Particle Fever is more nuanced than that, however; it aims for something with a higher degree of difficulty, flirting with viewers on intellectual, philosophical and, yes, even spiritual levels. Some of the material has a slightly geeky quality. (Is there a physics-based rap performance at a professional conference? Yes, yes there is.) But Levinson threads the emotional ups and downs of events (the film spans several years) through a number of personable and articulate subjects, including the aforementioned Kaplan and fellow theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed. This helps instill a rooting interest while the film also apportions time for some big questions.
Levinson is aided in this tack by legendary editor Walter Murch, who repeatedly locates small moments and pivot points amidst the academia. Particle Fever is more than a handy primer on physics and the Large Hadron Collider. It shows that the key to success in regards to the scientific method is in jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm. There’s a lesson for individual life there, as well.
Director: Mark Levinson
Starring: One very Large Hadron Collider, Martin Aleksa, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos, Monica Dunford, Fabiola Gianotti, David Kaplan, Mike Lamont
Release Dates: Mar. 7 (Los Angeles), March 12 (New York)