Particle Fever is a science documentary that, once it gets going, feels almost like a thriller. In it, director Mark Levinson follows a handful of physicists, both theoreticians and experimentalists, who are personally invested in what the biggest, most intricate tool in human history can tell us about the foundations of the universe.
This tool, the Large Hydron Collider, is a Megazord-sized particle accelerator, and it lies under the Franco-Swiss border. Levinson’s film starts when the machine was flipped on in 2008, spending protons flying close to the speed of light through a tunnel 17 miles in circumference. The machine’s purpose is to smash particles together to hopefully find the subatomic particle responsible for our universe, for life as we know it. Champagne bottles were popped on the day things started six years ago, and the film shows it as a touching moment of human achievement, but the real work was just beginning. In the next few years, the LHC would find the missing piece at the center of the puzzle of modern physics: the Higgs boson.
The most thrilling parts of the film have to do with how the Higgs data affects modern physics and the lives of the world’s top theoreticians. These guys — they are all men in the film — deeply want to know if the theories they’ve spent their careers sculpting are validated by the data. And, depending on which theories the data supports, the future of physics could be insanely different. Like, dead-end or new-world different. Nima Arkani-Hamed of Princeton, for instance, shows a deep concern that current physics might have terrible fundamental problems. He thinks that, perhaps, the LHC data will provide support for the multiverse theory, in which our universe is just one of many other universes, each with its own set of physical laws. If that were the case, the study and progress of physics as we know it would basically hit a brick wall. On the other hand, there are guys like Savas Dimopoulos of Stanford, who root for the data to point toward the theory of supersymmetry. If that were the case, there’d be a whole new world of particles (a whole new physics) for scientists to discover and understand.
The women in the film are all on the experimentalist side of the picture. They are on the ground in Europe, talking to the press, wearing hard hats, hauling in the data from space-age-looking control centers. From their perspective, we see that the LHC is a feat of human engineering on par with the Great Pyramids. Levinson tells us early on that the U.S. was working on a huge particle accelerator, but lawmakers stopped its construction because its findings wouldn’t give the country any immediate wartime or monetary gain. Some may call that sort of politics prudent, but the film pokes fun at such thinking, suggesting that it’s short-sighted and boring.
The big weak spot in the film is its ending. The fever pitch Levinson hits in regards to the possible future of physics just isn’t rewarded by a big closing moment or revelation. This, however, can’t be blamed on Levinson. The data just isn’t in yet. While the Higgs was discovered in 2012, the data didn’t really give a strong hint as to where the future of physics is going in terms of the battle (multiverse-vs.-supersymmetry) the film spends so much energy explaining. Still, despite the lackluster finish, Particle Fever does what any good science doc should: It gives you a deeper understanding to the complexities of our reality while making you appreciate those beautiful and talented men and women who’re exploring the frontiers of our universe.
Particle Fever is playing at the Edina Cinema.