Monday, July 21, 2014

Particle Fever (dir. Mark Levinson, USA, 2013)

Who would’ve thought a film about subatomic physics could be so exuberant, inspiring, and virtuous?  I was definitely not expecting to love Particle Fever, as I shudderingly recollect my exhausting struggles with college physics.  But sure enough, this is easily the best new documentary I’ve seen so far in 2014.

Particle Fever succeeds as a tale of suspense on two levels.  First of all, it tells the story of the efforts to prove the existence of Higgs boson particle.  Those of us who followed the news in 2012 know how this saga ended, but even so, Mark Levinson’s direction and storytelling swept me up in the events unfolding at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the French-Swiss border.

Levinson wisely chose to follow six theoretical and experimental physicists who were heavily invested in this endeavor’s outcome, so we the viewers watch the narrative unfold through their eyes.  Happily, each of these men and women are superb educators.  Courtesy of these physicists and some crafty graphic work, I now comprehend what was at stake in Geneva from 2007-2012 (and this from someone who gave up on Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing).

To summarize, the Higgs boson particle was the missing and central piece in the Standard Model of Particle Physics.  The Higgs boson was theorized to give all particles mass and hold all matter together, allowing it to form atoms.  Without it, the Standard Model would make no sense.  The Large Hadron Collider (large indeed, the hugest structure ever made by humans) at CERN would attempt to smash protons together at nearly light speed, allowing supremely sensitive cameras to image the subatomic particles emerging from the collision, including, hopefully, the Higgs boson.

The second item of suspense in Particle Fever relates to the mass of the Higgs boson.  This may not seem like a big deal, but the scientific stakes were quite high.  A lighter boson would steer physicists towards a fine-tuned, elegant universe of Supersymmetry; a heavier particle would indicate a chaotic, highly unstable multiverse. 

In case all of this sounds dry and tedious, the scientists are delightful to see at work and play.  CERN physicists rap goofily, yet with decently rhyming metrics and smart lyrics; and clichéd as it may be, it’s still pretty funny to watch geniuses of esoteric theory struggle to get audio on their laptops.  More importantly, the joy of discovery is contagious, and I found myself vicariously caught up in their triumphs and setbacks.

The scientists’ life stories sometimes overflow with drama, too.  As children, two of the theoretical physicists escaped war and persecution by fleeing Iran and Turkey with their parents.  Such experiences contrast with the peaceful cooperation of the CERN scientists, numbering 10,000 and hailing from over 100 nations.

I mentioned in my introduction that Particle Fever is a deeply virtuous film.  This multinational collaboration by great scientific minds (even when their respective governments clash) offers hope, when daily headlines tempt thoughtful people to despair.

The twin virtues of patience and perseverance are abundantly on display, too.  Construction on the Large Hadron Collider began in the mid-1980’s, and some of the theoretical physicists we meet have waited 30-40 years to see if their life work is borne out by the experimental data.  The Turkish-born scientist, Savas Dimopoulos, eloquently contrasts the scientific process to making good coffee, which only takes a few minutes to make and can be quickly discarded if the brew tastes mediocre.  No such luck for these heroically forbearing figures.

Invigorating, too, is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  At one point, David Kaplan, a theoretical physicist from Johns Hopkins, is quizzed by an economist about the potential gain from these experiments.  Kaplan unflappably responds, “I have no idea…It could be good for nothing, except for understanding everything.”  (Did I mention these chaps are highly quotable, too?)

I suspect that 20 years from now, this film will be considered a valuable historical document for its portrayal of pivotal scientific events.  What a treat that such a film also invigorates viewers with understanding and hope.

(Particle Fever was not rated by the MPAA.  The film contains occasional salty language, but I would urge its viewing by all scientifically-inclined teens and all open-minded adults.)

5 out of 5 stars

No comments:

Post a Comment