Particle Fever (2014) (a film review by Mark R. Leeper).

July 15, 2014 | By | Reply More

Back in the 1960s, people could appreciate and enjoy scientific accounts of the space program even if they did not understand all the technicalities. ‘Particle Fever’ is a science documentary for our time. The viewer does not need to have a scientific background to appreciate and enjoy this account of scientists trying to uncover the secrets of fundamental particles that could lead to a better understanding of the universe and its origins. The film follows six of the 10,000 scientists working for several years at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. They are trying to capture and find the mass of the Higgs Boson particle. For once we have a rarity, a documentary that is not depressing and not even overly political. Instead, it suggests looking at the universe with a real sense of wonder.

particleFever

Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

The Large Hadron Collider is the center of the largest, most expensive scientific project with the greatest number of people participating of any scientific endeavor in history. The experiment is going on at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research). The particle collider it has built is underground right under the border between France and Switzerland not far from Geneva. More than 10,000 scientists and engineers were required to design, build and interpret output from it. This staff came from more than 100 different countries. The collider itself is a circle as near perfect as it is possible to make it and it is 17 miles in circumference. Particles going clockwise and counterclockwise are accelerated to near the speed of light and then directed in each others path to collide shattering each other breaking into many smaller particles so the contents of the larger particles can be analysed better understood. By colliding these particles the accelerator somehow (I admit I am not sure how) recreates conditions just after the Big Bang.

Director Mark Levinson, once himself a particle physicist at Berkeley and now a filmmaker, tells the story of five years at CERN as few filmmakers have the background, the understanding and the clarity to tell. The film covers the years from 2008 when the collider was first turned on to 2012 when the Higgs Boson was finally isolated and its mass found. The Higgs Boson is believed to be the particle that holds matter together and that gives other particles mass. Knowing the mass of the Higgs Boson may tell us whether a multiverse model of the universe is true or if the competing supersymmetry model is correct. Each theory predicts a different mass for the Higgs Boson, so it would be extremely valuable to isolate one in order to observe the mass.

Levinson’s film follows six scientists and the ups and downs of the huge job of preparing for the experiment and then collecting an analysing the data from the experiment. With frequent interviews in a variety of accents, they tell the viewer what they are doing. One gets the feeling that particle physicists are people much like us except that they seem to drink more coffee. To keep this story moving apace, the editor is Walter Murch, who edited films like ‘Ghost’ (1990), the 1998 re-edit of ‘Touch Of Evil’ (1958), and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ (1999). Here he gives the film pacing and creates genuine suspense even in viewers who cannot appreciate the implications of the results.

So what does all this effort add up to? What will understanding the Higgs Boson do for humanity? Nobody in the world knows. Whatever is discovered, it will have literally cosmic implications. This is pure science, not applied. One can never know what applications this sort of knowledge can lead to but most practical science started out with just looking for scientific truth. This is a film that feeds the imagination and is the most exciting documentary so far in 2014. I rate it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. I have to say that being a lover of mathematics and Science Fiction, the dichotomy of boson mass implications appeals to me. A multiverse, an infinite set of parallel universes, appeals to my Science Fiction side. Supersymmetry appeals to the math maven in me. Either discovery would be exciting.

Mark R. Leeper

(c) Mark R. Leeper 2014

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Category: Films, MEDIA, Science

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