Particle Fever

Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye can go on TV today and make waves and a compelling appeal for science by remaining logical or taking the moral high ground. We should do more about climate change because it makes sense and it’s the right thing to do for the survival of our planet.

“Particle Fever” is about as dense of a science documentary as they come. But it appeals to the thrills and excitement of science by exploring what it is to be a scientist. “The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human,” someone says. That idealistic sentiment is what drives any scientific endeavor, and Mark Levinson’s film gets the passion behind understanding the world and discovering the mysteries it contains.

In “Particle Fever,” the beauty and coolness in question is the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, a giant machine designed to smash together particles with the intent of observing how they break apart and locating the elusive “Higgs Boson” particle that may be the key to the whole puzzle.

The scientists behind it say that the purpose of this machine started with the idea that they’re going to learn something that will change everything they know about physics forever. Or they’ll fail and be set back decades in terms of scientific understanding. Hyperbole much?

Levinson’s makes the case for caring through Mark Kaplan, a theoretical physicist who expresses his own challenges at telling people at parties just what he does for a living. “We’re recreating the Big Bang,” he says, but that’s not all, he clarifies. At a conference an economist asks him, “What’s the point?” Kaplan responds, “It could be nothing, other than understanding everything.” Radio waves did not have a purpose to be discovered, but they became a foundation of media distribution for decades. Electricity was not something that needed discovering or understanding, until it did.

Kaplan has an eloquent way of discussing these complex ideas. He talks of beauty, order and symmetry versus randomness, disorder and chaos, and his words resonate on artistic, if not spiritual levels. If everything works according to specific, symmetrically ideal rules, he explains, perhaps an idea of a higher power to put it all in place isn’t far off. If every universe is random, then what does it all mean? There is no point to all the research and quest for understanding that came before.

“Particle Fever” smartly avoids some of the religious backlash that might mire some of what’s being explained. It does however get some choice laughs at the baseless controversy surrounding the Large Hadron Collider that it might produce a black hole. The media looks awfully silly speculating on the apocalypse and calling the Higgs “The God Particle,” and one of Levinson’s subjects seems to put all the media attention into check: “Imagine if Thomas Edison was trying to invent the light bulb with a hundred camera crews watching? Come on! Turn it on already! Why isn’t it working?”

Levinson creates genuine suspense at discovering just whether or not the Collider will actually work. “Particle Fever” is filled with gorgeous animation that helps to illustrate Kaplan’s theories and the work being done inside the machine. And granted unprecedented access to the sheer size and scale of the Collider, Levinson spares no expense at getting Kubrickian visuals that make us dying to witness it all come together.

Those who followed the news of the Large Hadron Collider may already know some of the results before the film reaches its climax. But what “Particle Fever” leaves is a conclusion that’s somewhat inconclusive. The cosmos isn’t a random mess of rules and it’s not perfectly balanced either. There are questions yet to be answered and science still to be done. I can’t wait for the sequel.

3 ½ stars

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  1. It was a fantastic film. Do we know if they plan to make a sequel? I think it would be incredibly interesting to have them update us on their progress every 4 years or so!

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