The biggest scientific project of the early twenty-first century—at least in terms of sheer size—and the initial results to come of it are presented in terms even those of us who are challenged in the areas of math and physics can comprehend in Mark A. Levinson’s informative and exciting documentary “Particle Fever.” Equally important, the film does so in a way that portrays the participants in the project as an engaging and admirable bunch of characters: people who might be theorizing about things most of us can barely understand in terms of equations that boggle the mind emerge here as flesh-and-blood folk we can actually sympathize and identify with.
And, unlike the scientists one encounters in most Hollywood movies nowadays (just think of Wally Pfister’s recent “Transcendence”), they’re not putting us all at risk to further their research, even though there were some fear-mongers who alleged that if the machine they were building were ever turned on, it could mean the end of the world, and the world in the sense of the cosmos. Happily, those doubters were, as usual, wrong.
The machine at the center of “Particle Fever” is, of course, the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, a huge multinational effort built by CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research. The purpose of the huge collider was to try to discern one of the tiniest entities in the universe—the hypothetical Higgs boson, popularly referred to as the “God particle” and named after Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who hypothesized its existence in 1964. In oversimplified form, the Higgs boson, along with the field it creates, was theorized to be responsible for all the mass in the universe, its existence pivotal to the so-called Standard Model in particle physics, according to which the entire cosmos is composed of a small number of particles—quarks like protons and leptons like electrons—that need not possess mass but do.
The only way to prove the existence of the Higgs boson experimentally, however, was through the construction of a particle collider that could, so to speak, simulate the conditions—as David E. Kaplan, a physicist at Johns Hopkins who serves as one of the film’s producers and its ad hoc narrator—that prevailed right after the Big Bang. The effort eventually involved the participation of thousands of scientists from a hundred nations, all working together for a common goal. Their efforts culminated in 2012, when—on July 4—it was announced amid great hoopla that the data thus far provided by the collider had revealed unmistakably the presence of what was carefully termed a “Higgslike” particle. Higgs himself was in the audience and received an ovation after thanking all those who been part of the great enterprise. A further wrinkle involves the fact that the determination of the weight of the particle will be crucial to deciding which of two overarching theories in particle physics—the idea of super-symmetry, which emphasizes order and harmony in the universe, or the multi-verse alternative, which posits instability and disorder—is the more likely. In Levinson’s microcosmic portrait, Kaplan represents the former theory and Nima Arkani-Hamed, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the latter, and they genially debate the issue over a game of ping-pong that uses the walls as well as the table.
“Particle Fever,” filmed over several years, captures the scope and ambition of this massive project with consummate skill, courtesy of Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker, and cinematographer Claudia Raschke-Robinson. And it creates suspense—even when we know how it all turns out—in sequences that show the console crew holding their breath when the first trial run of their machine goes more slowly than anticipated, or enduring the ennui caused by an equipment breakdown, or expressing hopeful uncertainty when the Collider is set to working at full force for the first time.
Even more important from an audience point of view, it focuses on a few individuals whose passion infuses their work with a welcome human touch. In addition to relative outsiders Kaplan and Arkani-Hamed, we fellow several members of the CERN team—project director Fabiola Gianotti, who draws comparisons between science and music; Martin Aleska, whose dinnertime enthusiasm over the press coverage of the project’s initial results is brought back to earth by his young son, who asks him to pass the tomato salad; and Monica Dunford, an eager American postdoc who can barely contain her ebullience when data begin pouring in. And finally there’s Savas Dimopoulos, a renowned Stanford physicist who shows a poetic streak and who, when arriving late for the July 4 presentation, calmly watches it with a bunch of young project staff on a laptop in the lobby.
It’s too early, of course, to tell what the all the ramifications of the LHC’s data will be, not only for particle physics and the understanding of the universe, but for day-to-day usage. (When asked by an economist during one of his lectures what practical benefits will accrue from so expensive an undertaking, Kaplan honestly replies that he doesn’t know.) But what “Particle Fever” argues is that the drive to know the truth about the world we live in is itself an important part of what it means to be human—and it shows that the endeavor to do so is embraced by researchers who represent the curiosity and drive (not to mention intelligence) that mark all our highest aspirations. It’s an educational film that’s uplifting in the best sense.
A final observation might be in order here. The Hadron Collider was not the first such device on the drawing board. The United States started construction of what was then called the Superconducting Super Collider and spent some two billion dollars on the project before Congress cancelled it in 1993 for budgetary reasons. One congressman is shown in Levinson’s film cavalierly saying that we should let the Europeans do it. They did, of course, and now that they’ve succeeded, the whole episode might in the future be seen as part of a US surrender of leadership in basic scientific research to other nations. Since it’s arguable that it was such research that gave the US global dominance in the twentieth century, one might raise the question of what that governmental decision, and others like it, might mean for the nation’s prospects in the twenty-first. Perhaps our priorities have gotten a bit skewed.