Particle Fever review: asking really big questions about the smallest possible things

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Particle Fever green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A funny, exhilarating, suspenseful documentary about the Large Hadron Collider, and how physics is more akin to philosophy and art than you may have imagined.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a total science geek
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If you don’t think quantum physics is exciting… you will after this funny, exhilarating, suspenseful documentary look at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the people who built it and make it go, and the people who are using what it does to uncover the secrets of the universe.

The LHC is the biggest machine ever built by humans doing the most thrilling science experiment ever: searching for evidence of the Higgs boson, which brainiacs had figured must exist, in the same way that you can tell when there’s a piece missing from a jigsaw puzzle cuz you can see the space where it’s supposed to go (except they’re doing the puzzle without the picture on the box, and if the piece they find doesn’t fit in that empty space, they’ve got to start all over again). But the Higgs had never been observed, and the only way to get that deep down into the subatomic nitty-gritty of spacetime was to build a 17-mile-diameter ring to run some particles around in at the speed of light, smash them together, and examine at the debris. So that’s what they did.

Filmmaker Mark Levinson — himself a physicist, so he understands this stuff as well as anyone does (which is to say, not all that much) — crams a little bit of everything in here: Politics! (The U.S. could have had an even bigger version of the LHC, with the thousands of jobs and the incalculable prestige it would have brought, but shortsighted and science-illiterate politicians killed it.) History! (The world wide web was invented to handle the distribution of data the LHC, which began as a project in the mid 1980s, was going to have to cope with.) Kumbaya and world peace! (Thousands of scientists from all over the world, including from nations that are mortal enemies, work together at CERN, the lab that is home to the LHC.)

Levinson follows six scientists, some theoreticians, some experimentalists, from 2007, when the LHC was getting ready to finally be turned on for the first time, through July 2012, when the first significant, analyzed results of its experiments were released, and their enthusiasm and excitement is utterly infectious. And so is their nervousness: these totally cool, totally fascinating scientists have built careers on considering fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, but they’ve had no idea if their theories were anywhere near accurate… and now the LHC was going to let them know how close they were, or how far off.

A beautiful film as well as a provocative one, Particle Fever shows us why physics is asking the really big questions that have gone beyond the capabilities of philosophy and art, and yet why physics is more akin to philosophy and art than you may have imagined. See this film, and join us science nerds in contemplating the infinite (or is it?).

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Fri, Mar 07, 2014 8:10pm

(The world wide web was invented to handle the distribution of data the LHC, which began as a project in the mid 1980s, was going to have to cope with.

Wow. Talk about a spin-off. Next time someone sneers at a scientific project that seemingly has no use in the “real world,” I’ll just tell ’em about this.

reply to  Bluejay
Fri, Mar 07, 2014 9:11pm

hah! anytime someone says that about the space program, i point to my (and possibly theirs) eyeglasses… my lens are now an HD polymer that was originally created for the windows of the rockets that took astronauts into space.* just look at heat resistant tiles, a million things. but man, i’m wearing *space glasses* and i have never seen better.

*they have been improved on and refined about a hundred times since i got my first pair in the 1980s, but that’s where they started.

Sat, Mar 08, 2014 4:53pm

And there are people trying to do this stuff in the Middle East, too. Multiple countries, even including Israel. SESAME is the project.

Sat, Mar 15, 2014 2:00am

Just saw this and loved it.

SPOILERS (for the movie’s presentation, not necessarily for the science)

The philosophical bit at the end, making the connection between the Higgs and Shiva the Creator/Destroyer? MIND BLOWN.

I can’t wait to see what the LHC comes up with next when it reopens in 2015. Although I’m also anxious that whatever it uncovers could mean the end of particle physics as we know it (if I understood the film correctly). On the other hand, the end of particle physics as we know it could mean that the multiverse is real. MIND BLOWN AGAIN.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Mar 19, 2014 10:09am

The end of particle physics will only mean the beginning of some new field we cannot even conceive of yet, probably.