2015 Documentary Watch Project: Particle Fever

Science documentaries are my favorites. They’re the most difficult to watch, and I usually have to digest them in small chunks, but I love ’em.

Particle Fever is a 2013 documentary that follows a handful of the many physicists and smart folk working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN from 2007 to 2012, when their work culminated in the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Maybe you’re thinking a movie about physicists couldn’t get more boring, but not true! There’s a reason this film’s got “fever” in the title. It’s refreshing to see scientists as real people – excitable, fallible, harried, rumpled, laughing.

So what are these hefty brains – 10,000 of them from all over the world – doing with the biggest machine humanity’s ever built? Well they’re trying to find the answers to the megaquestions, like the origin of our universe. I say our universe, because there’s a possibility this isn’t the only one. The multiverse theory versus the supersymmetry theory. I’m not fully comprehending any of it, but it ain’t make believe. And it’s oh so fascinating; especially the sequences that delve deep into the physics. The film’s director Mark Levinson, sound editor for the film The English Patient and a Ph.D. in particle physics, doesn’t gloss over difficult concepts – the science is illustrated and explained visually and delightfully by the brilliant and personable David Kaplan, Savas Dimopoulos, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Monica Dunford.

What is a Large Hadron Collider? It’s a particle accelerator – a 27-kilometer ring of powerful magnets built deep underground in Geneva – construction began in the late 1980’s, when I was far more interested in Kiefer Sutherland than Physics. To me the LHC looks like a fancy electronic pipeline with a lot of wires and shiny bits but costs several billion dollars and has to be maintained with liquid helium at temperatures colder than space. Colder than space!! It’s designed so that two opposite beams of protons can be fired around the ring at almost the speed of light (almost the speed of light!!) – so fast that the protons collide. The goal is to convert that high energy collision into particles with really heavy mass – the kind of particles that aren’t normally detectable. Then the four detectors around the ring can record the results, and the science teams can measure and analyze the huge amounts of data and debris, because at the subatomic level this is how it’s done. It’s a way to recreate the conditions present just after the Big Bang, in order to study the laws of nature.

But mostly, when the first beam was fired in 2008, they were looking for the Higgs boson particle. “The Higgs” is named after Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who first theorized its existence in the 1960’s, and in the words of David Kaplan “it is weird and we do not understand it.” Ha! Maybe it’s the lynchpin of the universe.  Maybe not. But, that’s the point. I thought my favorite part of the documentary would be the moment when the LHC “works” for the first time: the scientists and technicians gathered in the control room erupting into joyous applause, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony roaring as rivers of data flood the supercomputers and images stream across the viewscreens like fireworks. But no, I was rocked by the more formal (though no less thrilling) announcement, four years later, that two of the four experiment teams – ATLAS and CMS – both measured a Higgs boson particle, and it’s mass is neither 115 GeV, like the supersymmetry theory proposed, nor is it 140 GeV, as predicted by the multiverse theory. It’s about 125. Right in the middle. Dude. Chills. Where do we go now?

Why do we need a Large Hadron Collider, especially when it costs sooooo much money? I understand the stance that this is a waste of funds that could be used for other humanitarian/environmental/insert-your-crusade-here purposes. Sometimes I agree. Mostly I don’t. For one, there are great benefits from the work that’s being done at CERN. For another – are you kidding? I want to know where I come from. I want theories and ideas and questions and then I want to test them and test them and test them until there’s no doubt about the answers. Let’s knock some atoms around and get to the heart of things, the dark matter of things. I have particle fever.


“CMS Higgs-event” by Lucas Taylor – http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/628469. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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