I like physics. I probably have as good a grasp of the field as any film critic, and I frequently read articles about things like the Large Hadron Collider and the revelation of the mass of the Higgs Boson and how that revelation has impacted supersymmetry theory.
You’ve probably heard of the Large Hadron Collider (possibly as that thing that didn’t actually destroy the world) and the Higgs Boson (sometimes called the God particle), but it’s less likely that you know what supersymmetry (affectionately called SUSY) is. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, much of the science in Particle Fever is going to fly right over your head.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. Because Particle Fever succeeds not because of its discussion of this particular science, but that of what science means and why it matters.
Director: Mark Levinson
Release Date: iTunes (July 1, 2014); VOD (July 15, 2014)
And now for a digression: In college, I took a course called “Crazy Ideas in Physics.” A fundamental part of that class was essentially a live action role play, where the class was broken up into multiple factions. These factions were pitching ideas to a commission (made up of students) that would then dole out (fake) money based on the legitimacy of the pitch, which by powerpoint presentations and a poster session where the pitches were elaborated, as well as appearances on a television program hosted by Hildy Johnson, the journalist, as portrayed by yours truly.
(Yes, I did have a better college experience than you.)
The commission was set to look for Revolutionary Ideas in science, physics or otherwise. One of the proposed theories involved a proposal to build a large, extremely expensive machine that would allow us to learn the mass of a neutrino. It had important scientific implications, but the question came up again and again from the members of the commission: what good does it do us as a society? Will the mass of a neutrino cure cancer? Will it incite world peace? No? Then why should we care?
Watching Particle Fever reminded me a lot of those “meetings.” Thousands of people from over 100 countries spent $6 billion on a giant circular tube that smashes together particles in order to find new particles. The big one that everyone was looking for was the Higgs Boson, which is the particle that gives mass to other particles. Modern physics requires the Higgs Boson to exist, and physicists knew it would be found one way or another, but they didn’t know how heavy it was. That question matters, but it doesn’t matter to the public.
Knowing the mass of the Higgs Boson won’t cure cancer. In fact, it doesn’t really do anything except disprove a number of theories about the universe. It doesn’t prove a single one, or even really clearly hint at a true answer. It just confirms the existence of someone everyone knew already existed.
To most people, that wouldn’t be worth $6 billion. But to those who really want to understand the world around us down to its most fundamental elements, the announcement that the Higgs Boson has a mass of approximately 125MeV matters a whole lot, and the investment was completely worth it. (And now more money is being invested to find out what’s next.)
Particle Fever follows several physicists through the current life of the Large Hadron Collider. Some of whom were directly involved in its experimentation, and others stayed on the sidelines. It’s a film that’s been years in the making, and it’s one that may deserve a sequel in a few years when the LHC is booted up again for Round 2.
But the LHC itself is the least interesting part of Particle Fever, as is the science in general The film tends to gloss over the technical stuff, going so far as to put a musical interlude on top of an important talk because it would have just gone over everyone’s heads anyway. Some things are explained, but if you don’t have some grasp on the fundamentals of the universe, you’re going to be really confused really quickly. Big points, like the fact that the Standard Model of physics upon which basically all modern knowledge is based is fundamentally flawed, are mentioned but not addressed, and that strikes me as an unfortunate oversight. That point is especially important, since it’s the entire reason for the LHC’s existence, but it’s just sort of shrugged off with a “Gravity’s really weak,” something that won’t make any sense to most people. Yeah, a proper explanation would have added to the runtime, but it also would have made everything a little bit clearer.
(As an aside, I found it interesting that so much time was spent on SUSY, by the way, considering that the revelations from the LHC has thus far only served to discredit SUSY theories, something the films admits but doesn’t really go into… But that’s neither here nor there.)
Instead, the thing that really got to me was the philosophy of the whole thing. Each of these physicists comes to the Large Hadron Collider, physically or emotionally, for a different reason, but all of them have made physics their livelihoods. The mass of the Higgs Boson affects all of their careers (and thus their lives) in a meaningful way. And especially in the time leading up to the unveiling of the data, the way they viewed the possibilities of the information was fascinating. I may not have learned any new science, but I learned a whole lot about the outlook of these people who obsess day in and day out over these abstract concepts. None of us will be able to ever really “see” the Higgs Boson or whatever it is the LHC (and its potential successors) reveal next, but there are people who devote themselves to it.
Seeing and hearing these incredibly intelligent people talk about this thing that may one day help us quite literally understand life, the universe, and everything. That is what makes Particle Fever worth watching.