Director Mark Levinson’s documentary focuses on the most elaborate and costly science experiment ever conducted.
The subject of the film is the Large Hadron Collider
, or LHC, a massive, miles-long particle accelerator designed to detect the Higgs boson by replicating, in miniature, the Big Bang. It works by smashing together two high-energy proton beams aimed directly at each other. Comprised of liquid-helium-cooled magnets and complex microelectronics that one scientist compares to a “five-story Swiss watch,” the LHC is the world’s largest crash-test laboratory.
The film follows six physicists from the scheduled startup of the CERN Large Hadron Collider to the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson (or “God particle”), the infinitesimal, hitherto-hypothetical cornerstone of the whole field of particle physics, and a key ingredient in the creation of the universe.
Three of the film’s six protagonists are theorists, armed with chalkboards, and three are experimentalists in hard hats. Two are women, giving the lie to the enduring cliche about the absence of female scientists. Monica Dunford, an American, is one of the youngest and most enthusiastic participants; Savas Dimopoulos, a veteran Greek physicist, who Murch calls the Yoda of the group, worries that he won’t live long enough to witness the breakthrough; and Nima Arkani-Hamed, whose family escaped from Iran during the revolution of ’79, also has a lot riding on the experiment. (See the interesting profiles of the physicists below)
Director Mark Levinson earned a doctoral degree in particle physics from Berkeley before veering into film, and producer David Kaplan, a professor of theoretical particle physics at Johns Hopkins, has also been active on History Channel and National Geographic science programs. They’re able to simplify and synthesize without dumbing down the material and put non-science-oriented viewers at ease by drawing a smart parallel between science and art.
The Nobel Prizes for Physics just announced for two of the central figures in Particle Fever – Peter Higgs was half the duo of theoretical physicists who first predicted in 1964, the existence of the so-called God particle that was the ultimate glue to the universe: The Higgs-Boson particle. The Nobel Prize in physics ultimately went to Peter W. Higgs and Francois Englert.
The film succeeds in making the normally intimidating and arcane world of genius-level physics at least conceptually comprehensible and even friendly to the lay viewer. This unexpected look at the long run-up to and successful completion of the most elaborate and costly science experiment ever conducted — the use of the Large Hadron Collider to attempt to find the Higgs boson — is not only fascinating, but also humanizes the field in a way that will inspire practitioners and provoke the curiosity of non-specialists.
“THE CREATOR & THE DESTROYER” : Statue Depicting A Dancing Shiva (Nataraj) In Front Of The CERN Large Hadron Collider.
It also doesn’t hurt that both the metaphysical and the (literally) physical backdrop for the film is enormous. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the biggest machine ever built. Buried underground in Switzerland, it resembles but dwarfs any set ever built for a James Bond film, measuring seven stories tall and consisting of a 17-mile ring through which protons, powered by seven-ton super-conducting magnetos, will be sent to collide with each other at a speed aimed to reproduce conditions such as those just after the Big Bang.
The Atlas Experiment, which was initiated in the 1980s, involves 10,000 people from 100 countries and the use of 100,000 computers to deal with all the data. An even bigger such machine was started in the United States but was canceled by Congress after a few years because there were no specific military or commercial applications for the experiment. ( so much for shortsightedness).
In addition to its impressive size and scope (it’s the largest machine ever built by man), the LHC unites 10,000 scientists from 100 countries in excited, collaborative harmony.
What is its reason for existence?
This is described in many ways: To try to understand the basic laws of nature, to discover the key particle that holds everything together (which is what the Higgs boson describes), to identify particles scientists know are out there but haven’t been seen and, in the simplest terms, to learn which group of theorists is correct — those who believe in the “super-symmetry” of one universe or the adherents of an ever-expanding “multi-verse” based on randomness and chaos.
Apparently the weight of the mysterious particle will determine which of two contrasting theories will hold sway: “supersymmetry,” which posits a harmonious, stable, knowable world, or “multiverse,” which proposes a more chaotic, unstable one — and might well annihilate well-established concepts underlying scientists’ lifelong endeavors. Kaplan and long-haired lookalike physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed cheerfully debate supersymmetry vs. multiverse during the course of a friendly game of table tennis.
Nothing can put a damper on the enthusiasm of the savants. When LHC finally achieves collision, the film offers a closeup of young postdoc Monica Dunford exclaiming “We have data!” as billions of bits of raw knowledge streaming into linked-up computers around the world. Shut out of the breathlessly anticipated announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson because he arrived late, Savas Dimopoulos, a major figure in the experiment and the movie, philosophically sits down, opens his computer and watches, enthralled.
But if cooperation and coordination are the joyous order of the day, all is not smooth sailing. The media hoopla that greets the first one-way circling of the collider proves premature as the project is plagued by delays and malfunctions, providing the filmmakers with a wide range of emotional ups and downs, as well as plenty of “Houston we have a problem”-style suspense. The huge cost of LHC and the nonstop media buildup place additional pressure on the scientists to produce results, particularly since the collider offers no immediate military or commercial payoff.
Kaplan and Levinson began production in 2008 and, while the center of action remains the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, the net is cast wide to encompass the perspectives of scientists as they gather there, as well as those following events with computer links elsewhere. The project leader is an Italian woman, Fabiola Gianotti; an American woman, Monica Dunford, provides an emotionally excitable take; a veteran Greek physicist, Savas Dimopoulos, is concerned that he’s too old to be able to take part in what he’s sure will be the exciting next phase of research; while Nima Arkani-Hamed, whose family escaped from revolutionary Iran after 1979, has a great deal riding on the experiment, about which he says, “The hype is approximately accurate.”
Particle Fever imparts a great deal of information while bringing to light a rarefied world defined by intense mutual interests and great camaraderie coupled with inevitable competitiveness. The big split among physicists is between the theorists and the experimentalists.
One key line also manages to summarizes the long quest that scientists have gone through in events leading up to the Large Hadron Collider. “Jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm lies the keys to success.”
On July 4, 2012, the results are finally obtained, to the joy of those assembled at CERN and in other smaller gatherings around the world. Among the crowd packed into the auditorium is aged British physicist Peter Higgs, for whom the elusive particle was named and who is seen removing his glasses and dabbing his eyes. It’s a well-earned moving climax to the film, as it’s evident that a major frontier has been conquered and new horizons opened up. A clip from Werner Herzog’s cave art documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is used to again invoke the link between art and science in the search for coherence and meaning.
And the story will continue as the Collider gets retooled and made stronger for the next phase in two years, pitting the “super-symmetry” of order against the randomness of “multi-verse.” So far the Higgs has not provided a definitive answer, which makes for great storytelling, if not definitive science.
ABOUT THE PARTICLE PHYSICISTS STARRING IN “PARTICLE FEVER”
Awarded a prestigious Enrico Fermi Fellowship from the University of Chicago, Monica’s gung ho, adventurous spirit has led her not only to the frontiers of science, but to the boundaries of human endurance. Her “leisure” activities of marathoning, cycling, rowing and mountain climbing have provided useful conditioning for the 16-hour days she regularly spends working on the ATLAS detector. As a young American post-doc, she is excited to be at the center of the physics universe and anxious to make her mark during her stint in Geneva.
Fabiola Gianotti :
In 1982, Fabiola received a piano diploma at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan, Italy. In 1989, she received her Ph.D. in Particle Physics from the University of Milan. She has devoted the last 20 years to the development of the ATLAS detector, the largest detector at the LHC. She became the leader of the experiment just as the LHC began operation, supervising nearly 3,000 physicists and engineers around the world. Like her Italian ancestor, Columbus, Fabiola’s fervent dream for the LHC is to discover an entirely unexpected “new world.”
: An intense, outspoken young theorist, Nima’s father was also a physicist, who spoke openly against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after the revolution in 1979. In fear for their lives, the family fled into Turkey on horseback. Nima now treats physics with the same life and death imperative. Snatched up by Harvard with a full professorship before he was 30, Nima moved in 2008 to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. With many of his ideas poised to be tested at the LHC, Nima hopes to make the impact his colleagues think he is capable of. He bet several years salary that the elusive Higgs boson would finally reveal itself at the LHC.
Mike Lamont :
Trained as a physicist in England, Mike migrated to the engineering side of the actual collider machine in Geneva. As Beam Operation Leader, he feels a personal responsibility to “deliver beams” of protons to the experiments. His dry wit has been a welcome relief in the adrenalin-charged, high-pressure environment of the CERN Control Center.
Martin Aleksa :
Arriving from Austria over 12 years ago, Martin now has a coveted permanent position at CERN. He was one of the original designers of one of the central components of the ATLAS detector, the Liquid Argon Calorimeter. Elected to the position of ATLAS Run Control Coordinator in 2011, Martin was handed overall responsibility for the collection of data from the ATLAS detector just as the LHC began to produce its first new results.
A Greek immigrant who now occupies an endowed chair at Stanford University, Savas has been on an odyssey for 30 years to find the true theory of nature. Many consider him the most likely to have a theory confirmed by the LHC, potentially winning the Nobel Prize. A mentor to many in the field, Savas has recently begun to feel the pangs of age, and worries if he’ll be an active participant in the next revolution.
With: Martin Aleksa, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopolos, Monica Dunford, Fabiola Gianotti, Mike Lamont
Director: Mark A. Levinson
Producers: David E. Kaplan, Mark A. Levinson, Andrea Miller, Carla Solomon
Executive producers: Thomas Campbell Jackson, Gerry Ohrstrom
Directors of photography: Claudia Raschke-Robinson, Wolfgang Held
Editor: Walter Murch
Music: Robert Miller