If you weren’t good at science in high school, ‘Particle Fever’ is a new documentary that simplifies physics for the layperson. Director Mark Levinson focuses on the biggest scientific experiment in the world. On July 4, 2012, scientists from around the world announced they discovered a particle that supports the Big Bang Theory. The particle is called the “Higgs boson” named after Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who theorized its existence back in 1964. In order to prove his theory, a huge super collider was built at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva, Switzerland. It’s a passionate look at scientists trying to unravel the mystery of how the universe began.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) looks like something out of a science fiction movie. It’s a massive seven-story machine that basically smashes protons along a 17-mile ring close to the speed of light. The resulting collisions reproduce the same effect as the Big Bang, the prevailing model for the early development of the universe. Essentially the key idea is that at one moment in time all matter started out at one point and expanded to form atoms (the building blocks of everything including us). If it sounds daunting, the filmmakers dumbing down the subject matter to make it interesting for everyone. Before venturing into filmmaking, director Mark Levinson earned a doctoral degree in particle physics from Berkeley. The film profiles a handful of scientists including David Kaplan, a professor of theoretical particle physics at John Hopkins. His lectures are easy to follow. He gets the audience interested in his theories that tie the connection between physics and our universe
The documentary includes an interesting cast of characters. These are some of the smartest nerds in the world. The project leader is an Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti as well as American physicist Monica Dunford who both share their excitement for the research. It’s nice to see two women scientists profiled dismantling the view that science is still a good ‘ol boys club. Along with chalkboards and animation, the scientists illustrate their mind-blowing theories. The media is even shown trying to sensationalize it into sound bytes and latching on to the possibility the experiment could create a black hole. Fortunately, the experiment won’t end the world.
What makes the documentary so compelling is how scientists aren’t pursuing their theories for profit. There is no economic benefit to their experiments. They are simply searching for a greater understanding of why we are here. Their theories might not even prove to be correct. The success of ‘Particle Fever’ comes from the suspense of the big experiment. Will the super collider even work? These scientists have devoted their lives to this one experiment. Why do we climb mountains? Why do we love to pursue our passions in life? These scientists remind us that it’s the chance to understand the beginning of time and ourselves. As Kaplan says, “It could be nothing other than understanding everything.”