by Matt Levine
For a film-lover like myself, enamored with the subjective ambiguity of creating and experiencing art, any objective science has an empirical allure: if movies pose questions, scientists seek answers, although both fields broadly endeavor to explore how and why humans exist on this earth. Although I savor the flexible interpretations of the creative arts, the clear-minded experiments of chemistry, biology, and the like sometimes seem like a pragmatic refuge, a territory in which propositions are not merely argued didactically but pursued verifiably. Documentaries about science, therefore, often seem like fascinating compromises between the two seemingly contradistinctive fields, exploring empirical truths through the malleability of artistic expression. But then, of course, there are the sciences that somehow land in between the two extremes—the advanced mathematics and theoretical physics which concoct grand hypotheses regarding the origin and nature of existence, yet somehow forge ahead with experiments designed to “prove” such philosophies. Particle Fever is a documentary regarding one such experiment—indeed, the costliest and perhaps most ambitious experiment of its kind in the history of physics, which ventures to create an explosion of subatomic matter in order to explore the resulting collisions for new particles which might explain nothing less than the creation of the universe. A documentary on such a subject might be inherently fascinating to watch regardless of its competency, but thankfully, Particle Fever lucidly and passionately immerses us in this astonishingly ambitious field, tackling the field of particle physics with admirable accessibility.
Director: Mark Levinson
Producers: David Kaplan, Mark Levinson, Andrea Miller, Carla Solomon
Cinematographers: Wolfgang Held, Claudia Raschke
Editor: Walter Murch
Music: Robert Miller
Cast: Martin Aleksa, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos, Monica Dunford, Fabiola Gianotti, David Kaplan, Mike Lamont
Premiere: June 14, 2013 – Sheffield Doc/Fest
US Theatrical Release: March 5, 2014
US Distributors: Abramorama, Bond360
The European Organization for Nuclear Research—otherwise known as CERN, the expansive scientific institution whose experiments in computer science led to the development of the World Wide Web in 1989—began constructing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland in 1998. As Particle Fever informs us with relative clarity, the field of particle physics may be split into two approaches: the theorists, who expound upon the existence of nano-matter such as protons, neutrons, and electrons in order to plumb the depths of cosmology and nature; and the experimentalists, who conduct large-scale experiments in order to test the veracity of these theories. The LHC represents a pinnacle for the latter approach, a multi-billion dollar facility 17 miles in circumference employing more than ten thousand scientists and utilizing a computer network that stretches across 36 countries. As far as larger-than-life projects go, the LHC is practically the Fitzcarraldo of particle physics.
What is the facility designed to analyze? One of Particle Fever’s most daunting challenges is attempting to explain this endeavor to laymen (like myself) without delving too overwhelmingly into the minutiae of theoretical physics. The LHC attempts to collide two particle beams of either protons or lead nuclei at velocities reaching the speed of light; by analyzing the resultant explosions of particles, physicists hoped to uncover new matter beyond the subatomic level which might explain such phenomena as the origin of mass dating back to the Big Bang and the existence of dark matter and anti-matter. In particular, the LHC hoped to discover the so-called Higgs boson, an extremely unstable particle with no electric charge which might serve as a foundation for exploring other inexplicable natural forces—including the accelerated expansion of the universe, verified by astrophysicists. Further exploration into such sub-atomic particles may prove or disprove two widely differing theories in physics: that of supersymmetry, which posits a balance between elementary particles constituting a logical order to the universe and its natural phenomena, thus suggesting the ability to comprehend heretofore inexplicable forces of nature by reproducible patterns; and that of a multiverse, the possibility that there are numerous universes existing in tandem outside of our own, ensuring the limits of our knowledge and our inability to ever truly fathom the entirety of space, time, energy, and matter.
Confused yet? The fact that I can (hopefully) describe any of this with a glimmer of comprehension is a testament to Particle Fever’s ground-level engagement with insanely outsized hypotheses. It may also sound like Particle Fever amounts to a head-scratching science lesson, but the documentary approaches such grandiose concepts through immediate observation of the scientists working at the LHC and theoretical physicists working elsewhere. At the facility itself, we meet such figures as Martin Aleksa, a likeable family man who infectiously shares his love of science with his precocious children, and Fabiola Gianotti, one of the experiment’s spokespeople and coordinators (and an accomplished pianist) whose exploratory zeal comes to personify the scientific spirit of discovery. More interesting, perhaps, are the dialogues between theoreticians such as David Kaplan, Nima Arkani-Hamed, and Savas Dimopoulos, whose ping-ponging conversations regarding the origins of existence combine the thrill of exploration with the cool reserve of pragmatism, mixed in with the existential doubt faced by all humans who ponder how we came to be. Some of these figures are more compelling to watch than others, but together they convey the diversity of personalities and perspectives that collaborate on such a massive endeavor and inflect it with the ardency of human aspiration.
Particle Fever, like most documentaries on any subject matter, is structured as a narrative—an understandable bid for audience engagement that nonetheless hampers the film. We begin in 2008 as the multinational employees at the LHC work to activate the machine’s first particle beam—an aggressively euphoric scene accompanied on the soundtrack by “Ode to Joy.” There are, of course, conflicts and setbacks—especially a liquid helium leak which destroys a number of electromagnets, requiring fourteen months of repairs, and CERN’s diplomatic attempts to sugarcoat this catastrophe for the media—leading to a natural yet overindulgent climax when the LHC announces in 2012 the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson, otherwise known as the “God particle.” Once again set to artificially inspiring music, the scene in which Gianotti reveals this discovery in a press conference unfortunately resembles a rousing underdog tale complete with a standing ovation and bittersweet tears from aged scientists experiencing the culmination of their work; with so much at stake scientifically and emotionally, the scene is undeniably affecting, though its overzealous emotional manipulation diminishes its power more than it bolsters it.
Aside from the constricting attempts to turn this discovery into an inspirational success story, though, Particle Fever adeptly illustrates the resonance and mind-bending repercussions of the LHC’s experiments. With material so fascinating, all Particle Fever had to do was not screw it up too badly; thankfully, the documentary does more than that, as it elucidates these far-reaching theories with inquisitive insight and a nicely minimalist style. When Robert Miller’s musical score isn’t asked to tack on a phony uplifting soundtrack, it provides a unique, percussive backdrop to the action, and MK12’s sleek graphic design visualizes the film’s intangible concepts with a burst of color, shape, and motion. The cinematography is hardly groundbreaking, but at least the interior and exterior locales—the gargantuan network that is the LHC and the surrounding Alps on the Franco-Swiss border—provide a plethora of ravishing images. The director, Mark Levinson (himself a theoretical physicist who studied at UC-Berkeley), knows when to get out of the material’s way to let it speak for itself, and when to include contemplative allusions to sports and art. Theoretical physics—in particular, the combustion of objects in motion and the balance or asymmetry of minute elements—is alternately compared to musical composition, biking, ping-pong, and film editing itself, making a solid and creative argument for how such a seemingly esoteric field is more relatable and ubiquitous than we might have imagined.
Numerous times throughout Particle Fever, theoreticians and experimentalists utter extravagant claims that the LHC will “change the way we think about nature,” and that never before in history has “an entire field hinged on one event.” Such outsized hyperboles are common in documentaries hoping to proclaim their own importance, but this is one of the few cases in which we become convinced of the legitimacy of these proclamations. Art and science are often seen as distant relatives, but Particle Fever instead subtly argues that they are in fact estranged twins—correlative attempts to fathom the nature of humanity and the reason for our existence (if in fact such a thing exists). Making expert use of the mind-boggling ideas at its disposal, Particle Fever will get you thinking about the birth of the cosmos, the paradox of anti-matter, and the possibility that a swath of parallel universes exist adjacent to our own. Cognitively speaking, it might be the most entertaining movie of the year.