Catching Particle Fever

Documentary gives physics fans a look inside the Large Hadron Collider

IN DEEP  Interspersed with the plot of Particle Fever are artful explanatory animations and commentary highlighting that the Higgs boson is a stepping stone toward a deeper understanding of the universe.

Courtesy of PF Productions

There’s a brilliant dreamlike sequence about halfway through the documentary Particle Fever, when theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed enters his building at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., looking troubled. Cartoon equations and figures swirl around his head. As he walks upstairs to his office and starts to work, the building’s windows fall away. Shortly thereafter, the whole world disintegrates into a mess of alternate universes, almost none of which could support life. Could our existence be an accident, the film asks, and our attempts to understand nature a folly?

“This is the sort of thing that really keeps you up at night,” Arkani-Hamed says. In the film, much of his life’s work is riding on measurements emerging from the Large Hadron Collider, a giant ring-shaped particle accelerator under the Franco-Swiss border. The stakes are high too for David Kaplan, the Johns Hopkins physicist who conceived the film. But to do these theory-confirming or theory-busting measurements, thousands of experimentalists inhabiting the collider’s tunnels and control rooms first have to get the machine to work — no small task.

These experimentalists, practical and hardheaded, are the yin to the theorists’ yang. While Arkani-Hamed spins yarns with hair flying, LHC physicist Monica Dunford coolly dons a hard hat and plunges into the collider’s electronic guts. Thanks to her and her colleagues’ efforts, the machine eventually delivers data that confirm the proposition a handful of theorists dreamed up 50 years ago: An unseen particle called the Higgs boson explains why matter has mass (SN: 7/28/12, p. 5). The experimentalists cheer and pop champagne bottles; the theorists, tuning in from Princeton, clap too, but quickly get busy revising old theories and devising new ones.

Interspersed with the plot are artful explanatory animations and commentary by the six articulate physicists who carry the story. Through these characters, we learn that billions of dollars have been spent not just to find a particle; the discovery of the Higgs is a stepping stone toward a deeper understanding of the universe. Kaplan says the fate of his whole field hinges on making this clear to the politicians and public who will be needed to fund future accelerators.

The film, like the collider it chronicles, is not flawless. Viewers who haven’t followed the LHC saga in the media may have trouble connecting the somewhat disjointed plot points. And physicists at work are not the most cinematic bunch: Much of the film consists of people staring at computer screens, writing equations on blackboards and drinking coffee. But this is a quirky and brilliant bunch of people, who in all earnestness say things like “Did you guys see our beautiful plot?” and “I really feel attached to this dataset.” It’s worth getting to know them a bit.

Kaplan began filming in 2007, when he realized he could potentially document “a unique event in scientific history,” the discovery of the Higgs boson. He and his crew, which includes physicist-turned-producer and director Mark Levinson and editor Walter Murch (of Apocalypse Now fame), have done an admirable job with challenging material. The result is a beautiful and moving tribute to one of humankind’s true triumphs.

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