Particle Fever review

The thing that differentiates scientists,” says physicist Savas Dimopoulos in Particle Fever, “is purely an artistic ability to discern what is a good idea, what is a beautiful idea, what is worth spending time on and, most importantly, what is a problem that is sufficiently interesting, yet sufficiently difficult that it hasn’t yet been solved.”

Theoretical physicist and Particle Fever producer David Kaplan describes the Higgs as “unlike any other particle … it’s the linchpin of the standard model … the crucial piece responsible for holding matter together”. The search for the Higgs boson involves the biggest and most expensive scientific experiment in history, involving more than 100,000 scientists from 100 countries. The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator with a circumference of 27km, is designed to make two beams of protons collide with enough force to disturb the Higgs field – a theoretical field that fills all of space and gives particles mass – and create a Higgs particle.

The “beautiful idea” at the heart of this documentary, screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival, is the standard model of physics, a “theory of everything” developed in the 20th century. But the problem with this model, which was designed to explain the interactions between subatomic particles – all the different sorts of quarks, leptons and bosons – is that it made sense only with the existence of an undiscovered theoretical particle called the Higgs boson.

The documentary follows six physicists – theoreticians and experimentalists – from 2007, during the final construction of the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Switzerland, to the announcement of results in 2012.

“It’s big, no?” says Kaplan as he tours the magnet-filled underground tunnels. There’s a lot of big stuff in this movie – big instruments, big science, big intellects.

Installing the calorimeter for ATLAS, one of the four main experiments of the large hadron collider. Photo courtesy of CERN.

Installing the calorimeter for ATLAS, one of the four main experiments of the large hadron collider. Photo courtesy of CERN.

To people who question the value of the project, Kaplan says it might only help scientists to better understand the laws of physics. But he also points out that there could be unexpected spin-offs. The world wide web, for example, was invented at Cern as a way for physicists around the world to communicate with each other.

From the stylish opening title sequence, reminiscent of a 1970s paranoid thriller, to the final revelation, this is an intense and visually striking movie. There’s tension as this massive machine – “like a five-storey Swiss watch”, says one of the scientists – faces a lengthy shutdown and repairs, and as physicists wait to see if theories they’ve spent their lives working on are going to stand up in the face of experimental data.

At stake are two competing theories about the nature of the universe. Dimopoulos is one of the proponents of supersymmetry, the idea that the Higgs and the other particles of the standard model are part of a much bigger symmetry and there are many more particles yet to be discovered – hopefully by the Large Hadron Collider.

Younger theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed has a competing theory: that our universe is a tiny speck in a mostly inhospitable and random multiverse and the information we need to explain things such as dark matter could be hidden in other universes. On one side is “symmetry, beauty and order”, on the other chaos, randomness and “the end of physics”.

A lighter Higgs boson, about 115GeV (giga­electronvolts), would suggest supersymmetry. A heavier Higgs, about 140GeV, would favour the multiverse theory. Which will it be?

At a time when Hollywood is making monster movies about giant robots, this is a small but beautifully realised film about one of the biggest machines humankind has ever built. I look forward to seeing it on the big screen.

Particle Fever, directed by Mark Levinson, plays at the New Zealand International Film Festival:




About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
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