Particle Fever Dir. Mark Levinson

[Abramorama; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

There’s immense value in understanding how dumb you are, or more precisely, how little you know. A lot of people in my generation drew an epistemological line and stood firmly within the humanities camp, parsing through our understanding of the world in sketches drawn by Eggers and Joyce and Chomsky. We now parade in an onslaught of letters and think pieces, criticizing and re-criticizing, placing our lives in a Moebius Strip of back pats and congratulatory articles. We triumph in the subjective and hold our views accountable to none. But the very real fact of the matter is slighting hard science and empirical data has done nothing to negate hard science and empirical data; scientists remain at the fore of understanding how our universe functions, and they couldn’t care less about anything other than objective understanding.

Particle Fever is an incredible documentary chronicling the creation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the thousands of immense minds involved in the project. At its core, the intended pursuit is for the Higgs particle, the “god” particle missing as the centerpiece for the vanguard of physics models for the universe, through the creation of the LHC. David Kaplan, a Theoretical Physicist at Johns Hopkins, acts as an instrumental bridge between the public and the esoteric physics community, translating the fore of science into understandable terms for the viewer. In addition to Kaplan, 5 other main stage players involved in the LHC are brought into the spotlight through Particle Fever, and the effect is both enlightening and humane, placing faces and lives to the individuals investigating the fundamental elements of our universe.

The divide between theoretical and experimental physics seems inconspicuous to the general public, but Particle Fever places the schism in the context of rival teams working in tandem. In addition to providing insight to some of the most incredible minds currently alive, the film also elucidates the separate worlds between those who posit what lies at the foundation of physics and those who put the ideas into practice. Nima Arkani-Hamed, the favorite son of contemporary physics and one of the most intelligent individuals on the planet, guides the viewer through modern ideologies of physics and directs and informs the audience on the hopes of the physics community. In contrast, Monica Dunford, an experimental post-doc physics scientist on-site at the CERN site in Switzerland, provides a cheeky presence and harsh contrast to the theorists, constantly discussing the useful aspects of applied physics and the inefficacy of theoretical physicists. The effect wanes after awhile.

For everything the film teaches the general public about physics, the film is also an insight to the people behind modern science. Viewers get to see the scientists, both theoretical and experimental, as people. This humanistic element is integral to making the chronology of the Large Hadron Collider both interesting and meaningful. Bear in mind: these people are incredible minds, and they’re nerds. One scene in particular, involving the first run of the LHC, involves the experimental physicists rapping about physics while wearing lab coats and donning rubber masks of Einstein and Newton. Bill Nye would have cringed. When the Higgs is discovered, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” plays over a montage of obnoxious animated moments in scientific history. Bear in mind: this was made by nerds, and for nerds.

Particle Fever is an accomplishment in that the film manages to relay the events of the discovery of the Higgs particle in terms for the general public. There’s kitsch, there’s boredom, there’s hoopla; what you need to bear in mind is that these people are in no way geared to speak to the public but have done their best to tell you how amazing what they’ve done is. For those truly interested in intellectual gain, this film will probably do wonders to help you realize how little you know of the world. I’m thrilled for this community to tell me how much less I know in the coming decades.

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