I don't know if it was by design--it probably wasn't--but one of the first line-ups of films at this year's True/False put Particle Fever right before 20,000 Days on Earth. Particle Fever documents the starting of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the largest science experiments ever mounted by human beings. One of the primary aims of the Large Hadron Collider was to verify the existence of the Higgs Boson, the keystone of the current Standard Theory of how the universe works. 20,000 Days on Earth follows musician Nick Cave as he composes his last album, Push the Sky Away, including a song called "The Higgs Boson Blues." If it wasn't planned, it's a classic case of synchronicity. Really, there's no guarantee that the audiences for these film would be substantially made up of the same people, so why plan something like that?
Be that as it may...
Particle Fever (2013, directed by Mark Levinson), as I say, is on hand for the first live tests of the Large Hadron Collider, a supercollider built outside of Geneva by CERN, the pan-European organization for nuclear research. There was, in fact, an even bigger collider being built in Texas that wound up being killed by conservatives in Congress who saw no economic benefit to the project. The economics of pure research is one of the film's minor themes. Is there an economic benfit? Physicist David Kaplan addresses an economist in the text of the film on that very question and points out that there was no economic benefit to radio waves when they were first discovered. Pure research, the desire, nay, the need to know how the universe works is one of the defining characteristics of human beings. Like the need for art--something also addressed in the film--it's what makes us human beings. To deny this is to slide back into darkness. Or so the film would have you believe. As it so happens, I agree with its point of view, so in my case it's preaching to the converted.
Science is fun. Even at the highest level where a the play of ideas is esoteric and beyond the grasp of the layman, you can see the glee in the eyes of its scientists. The enthusiasm of everyone depicted in this film is infectious. When Monica Dunlop, a post-doc working on the Atlas project, describes the experiment in terms of a smashing two things together to look at the component parts, there's more than a hint of a kid playing with toys in her worldview. It's simple enough, and one of the great virtues of this film is the accessibility of its ideas. Science is also work, and you see a LOT of work in this movie. The machineries involved are spectacular, true, but they are also finicky and keeping them online is a full-time job. Many of my scientist friends describe their jobs as a drudgery of failure and paperwork, and that's ALSO a part of this film. The collider breaks down shortly after they turn it on for the first time, a setback that costs the experiment a year of repair time.
I'm completely delighted with the diversity of the scientists presented in this film. The experiment itself has a worldwide scope, embracing scientists from many countries who are politically antagonistic. I LOVE the fact that two of the points of view are women. I already mentioned Monica Dunlop. There's also Fabiola Gionotti, the coordinator and spokesperson for the Atlas project who came to science through music. Given that science--particularly science at this level--is sometimes thought of as a boys’ club, this is an unexpected delight. I do wonder about the significance of there being no women among the theoretical physicists (Dunlop and Gionotti are both experimentalists).
Many of the films at this year’s True/False have focused on the influence of the media on how we perceive the world. One of them even compared the media’s gaze to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (the act of observing changes the conditions). This is true of this film, as well. A great deal of the angst surrounding the success or failure of the LHC stems from scrutiny from the media, some of whom have contracted with CERN for the first images from the collider once it’s operational. At one point, Gionotti staves off an effort to turn the collider on in secret to make sure it works before turning it on for the media. Some of the film’s biggest laughs come from the absurd notions from religious kooks who think the collider will open a black hole in Switzerland and destroy the earth, perhaps influenced by the unfortunate desigination of the Higgs Boson as “the god particle.”
This film is populated with spectacular images of science, either in real life--the LHC is nothing if not photogenic--or in the many graphics that populate the film. Levinson and his film editor, the great Walter Murch, imbue the film with a snappy pace that carries the viewer along with the ebullience of the scientists. This combination disguises the fact that there's a positively huge existential crisis at the center of this film. I saw someone describe this film as "lightweight" elsewhere on the internet, but that conclusion shows a lack of comprehension when it comes to the scope of this film's subject matter. Depending on its properties, the Higgs Boson represents the potential end of physics, with ramifications that affect every cosmology ever conceived--even the ones proposed by religions. If the Higgs points to a universe built on supersymmetry, the pursuit of physics as an instrument of understanding the university can continue. If it points to a universe where the laws of physics are local--a multiverse, as it were--then that's it; we've reached the end. We will never know the answer to any of the remaining big questions that dog our understanding of how the universe works. If you think about the ramifications of this, the pursuit of the Higgs Boson is absolutely terrifying. That the Higgs is ultimately ambiguous on this point is one of the experiment's most dogged frustrations. That's science for you, though. Data changes everything.
The human dimension of this is seen in conversations between theoretical physicist Savas Dimopoulos and his colleagues, who wonder if the Higgs Boson will make their professions obsolete. For young physicists, will their careers be forestalled if the Higgs is the last particle that can be found? One older physicist laments the possibility that he wasted his life. It's a question that hovers over the footage of Peter Higgs as he waits for the information about the particle that bears his name.
In spite of all of this, Particle Fever manages to depict human beings at their best. Many of the documentaries this year show human beings at their worst, so this functions as a tonic for any misanthropy one might catch from the other films. This is a film populated by geniuses, but they're all quirky, utterly human people and I thought they were all utterly beguiling, whether they were contemplating the nature of the cosmos or playing table tennis (and contemplating the nature of the cosmos).
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