Why a New Film on Particle Physics Is Essential Viewing

by Allison Meier on March 7, 2014

ATLAS at CERN (courtesy CERN)

ATLAS at CERN (courtesy CERN)

In terms of understanding the very nature of our world, it’s hard to overestimate the significance of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Unfortunately, the importance of the massive particle collider at CERN in Switzerland is a complex idea to explain, and occurs on a magnitude that is hard to connect with on the scale of our everyday lives. That’s why the new film Particle Fever is so exciting.

Particle Fever film poster

Particle Fever film poster

The documentary opened this week at Film Forum and was preceded by a Tuesday night panel discussion at Neuehouse moderated by theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander with director Mark Levinson, producer David Kaplan, theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, and experimental physicist Monica Dunford. All of the physicists — which includes producer Kaplan — are featured as figures in the film, and Levinson himself got a PhD in particle physics before going into filmmaking. Despite this being a collection of voices very much right in the center of this experiment of a century, the dialogue is aimed at bringing its breakthroughs to a wider audience.

“This movie is not a Nova special,” Arkani-Hamed emphasized at the panel discussion. Instead he said the film “gives you a sense for what we actually do, as we do it, and what drives us, which is truth with a capital ‘T,’ … it’s something larger than ourselves.”

At its simplest, the LHC is an experiment to understand basic laws of nature. Arkani-Hamed serves as one of the counterpoints in the film to the meaning of the most prized outcome of the LHC: the Higgs boson particle. The existence of the particle was first proposed back in the 1960s by physicists including Peter Higgs. Not to spoil part of the film, although you may recall it from the media cycle, but remarkably that evasive particle had its existence established by CERN in 2012, garnering Higgs the Nobel Prize.

Yet what it means — a grasp of physics defined by supersymmetry or multiple universes — is where the drama of some of the film hinges. And the fact that massive theories like this cannot just be proposed, but also tested, in one scientist’s lifetime is a surprisingly emotional story. In the film when the existence of the Higgs is finally confirmed you can understand why Peter Higgs himself has to wipe tears from behind his glasses.

The Calorimeter inside the ATLAS detector (courtesy CERN)

The Calorimeter inside the ATLAS detector (courtesy CERN)

Particle Fever_02_Monica Dunford emerges from ATLAS_Photo Courtesy of PF Productions

Physicist Monica Dunford emerges from ATLAS (courtesy of PF Productions)

Particle Fever_04_Fabiola Gianotti in the ATLAS control room, March 29, 2010_Photo Courtesy of CERN

Fabiola Gianotti on the left in the ATLAS control room on March 29, 2010 (courtesy of CERN)

One of the most beautiful things about physics is that we as humans have a language — mathematics — to write down the laws of nature, to communicate in a way with how our own universe was formed. And this is a film that emphasizes the human effort behind the project. Some 10,000 people work at CERN, from all over the world, and that doesn’t even include the people all over the globe who have contributed to the line of physics theories through history that led up to the project planned in the 1980s. (The World Wide Web was actually invented in 1989 so that CERN scientists could globally share information.)

Each of those scientists singled out in the film, from the young and intrepid experimental physicist Monica Dunford who delves right into the gargantuan machine, to Savas Dimopoulos at Stanford University who has devoted his life to the theoretical ideas that could be proved, or disproved, by the LHC, to the calm and confident Fabiola Gianotti who went from studying the piano to being a leader in the LHC experiment, drives home the diversity and enthusiasm of the people working in physics. One of the strongest voices is producer and physicist Kaplan, who explained at the panel why he thought it was so essential to get these years of launching the LHC on film: “It’s very rare that you can predict a revolution before it happens.”

He also answers what might be the biggest question of a public viewing the film: why? Why care about something subatomic that we can’t even seen? Why build a massive machine that has no commercial or military application? (The film includes ranting segments of the 1993 House of Representatives debate that destroyed the United States’ own collider project, which serves as the extreme voice of dissension.) In the film an economist demands what the value is of this experiment that has cost billions. Kaplan answers:

“What is the LHC good for? It could be nothing other than understanding everything.”

Hopefully that’s a message that can resonate through the future of the experiment, and entice a film audience to plunge into the rushing current of its discoveries.

Particle Fever is screening at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street) through March 18. It continues in select theater through April. Click here for a full schedule. 

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Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

    Good stuff, Hyperallergic! Thanks for highlighting the film!

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