‘Particle Fever’ chronicles the human story of search for the Higgs boson and the truth about ‘an essential mystery of the universe’
On July 4, 2012, the outcome of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of physics was revealed with the launch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an 18-mile-long super-collider, in an attempt to find the Higgs boson, the so-called “God” particle that holds everything together. Meanwhile behind the scenes, an entire generation of physicists faced the defining moment of their careers: an announcement about the elusive Higgs boson that would change the way the universe is understood. One aim of this Atlas Experiment, as it was called, was to learn which of two groups of theorists is correct, either the “super-symmetry” crowd campaigning on the one-universe platform, or the “multi-verse” aggregate promoting the concept of an ever-expanding “multi-verse” based on randomness and chaos.
There to chronicle the moment on film, as they had been doing throughout the seven-year run-up (which yielded 500 hours of footage) to that epochal event, were two documentary filmmakers, physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson and David Kaplan (Johns Hopkins University professor of particle physics). Now the whole story, titled Particle Fever, is complete, the recipient of considerable advance acclaim and booked to open in theaters around the country in March and April. Arguably the unsung hero of the doc is multiple Oscar winning editor Walter Murch (his credits include Gimme Shelter; all three Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, the latter being his first Academy Award winning work; and The English Patient, for which he won an unprecedented double Academy Award for film editing and sound engineering), whose encyclopedic knowledge of film language and keen understanding of physics shows in Particle Fever‘s accessible science and empathetic portraits of the scientists being very human as the big day approaches.
Particle Fever official trailer #1
Particle Fever follows the inside story of six brilliant scientists seeking to learn the truth about an essential mystery of the universe, documenting the successes and setbacks in the planet’s most significant and inspiring scientific breakthrough. Not least among these six are physicist Savas Dimopoulos, who’s been waiting three decades to test out his theories, and the great hero of particle physics himself, Peter Higgs, who is moved to tears at journey’s end.
For distinguished physicists like Fabiola Gianotti and Savas Dimopoulos, the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and results of the collision will be the culmination of a lifetime’s work, whereas for physicists like Monica Dunford and Martin Aleksa the experiment is more than an opportunity to truly establish them in an elite world of physics; it’s a chance to be a part of history.
The film also follows Nima Arkani-Hamed, an intense, outspoken young theorist whose ideas will be tested at the LHC, leaving him with much to prove. And, in the face of mechanical functions and failures, Beam Operation Leader Mike Lamont feels tremendous pressure to make sure the launch of the LHC goes as planned.
Particle Fever official trailer #2
As they seek the keys to unlocking the very building blocks of physics, our protagonists join more than 10,000 scientists (and 100,000 computers) from over 100 countries in pursuit of a single goal: to recreate, with the LHC, conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter. But our heroes confront an even bigger question: do the clues to the origins of the universe even exist? This is all part of the Atlas Experiment, which began in the 1980s and once involved a machine even bigger than the LHC, developed in the U.S. but cancelled by Congress when it became clear there were no specific military or commercial applications for the experiment.
Four years prior to the outcome of the LHC experiment, Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker, joined forces with Johns Hopkins University professor of particle physics David Kaplan, who saw the dramatic potential behind the world’s largest experiment. The filmmaking team gained unprecedented access at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, in order to narrate the very human story at the root of a massive venture.
A clip from Particle Fever posted on YouTube by the Adelaide Film Festival
Christopher Campbell says it best, observing in his review of the documentary published online at Nonfics.com: “The other thing I thought of is a recent story in the New York Times on Frederick Wiseman‘s New York Film Festival entry, At Berkeley, which noted that he wasn’t sure whether or not to include the scene of a lecture on dark energy, which he didn’t understand at all. But he says he wound up including it so the audience can feel the same disorientation he felt (admittedly I did), whereas with Particle Fever we’re made to feel as if, whether we understand the science or not, we’re anything but disoriented. We’re there, tensely experiencing a moment in the history and progress of science as no news outlet could possibly report, and as no textbook of the future will possibly relay.”
Herewith a Q&A with the filmmakers as pieced together from excerpts of longer interviews published in physicstoday, PBS Newshour and at the Particle Fever website. The source of each excerpt is indicated at the end of each question with the designations (PT), (PBS) or (PF).
How many years did it take to do this film and what were the challenges? (PF)
Mark Levinson: David and I met at the end of 2007 and really started working on the film, essentially full-time, at the beginning of 2008. The big announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson on July 4, 2012 became a great end for the film. It took another year to put it all together into the finished film.
There were many challenges in filming. First, there were 10,000 people involved in the experiment. We always knew we wanted it to be character-based, but who do we choose? People were also scattered all over the globe. How, on a rather limited budget, do we cover people all around the world?
Also, particular to this story, a story about real scientific discovery, we constantly had to decide when and where something significant might occur. And how long do we continue filming? What if there was no definitive discovery?
Multiple Academy Award winning film editor Walter Murch on Particle Fever
One of the things that was not a particular challenge to me, luckily, because of my physics background, was understanding what was going on.
In terms of actually putting the film together, the biggest challenge certainly was making the film accessible to a non-specialist audience, while at the same time remaining authentic.
Why was the discovery of the Higgs particle so important? Why was this something that physicists pursued for decades? (PBS)
David Kaplan: The Higgs is just part of a long story that we’ve understood after many, many years–that basically matter and what makes up matter, like atoms, isn’t all there is, and that there’s something perhaps more fundamental, which is the vacuum of space itself. And what we’re always now attempting to do in colliders in particle physics is not break things apart and look inside. We’re trying to disturb the vacuum of space.
If you can imagine, say, a microscope. You’re looking through the microscope and the way you see something is the light bounces off the thing and bounces into your eye and gets magnified by the lenses. And to see something really tiny requires light with a wavelength that is tiny enough that it can resolve whatever you’re looking at. And subatomic particles are too small to resolve by regular visible light. And so what we send around those circles (at the Large Hadron Collider) are not just particles. They’re waves. And they’re waves with a wavelength so tiny, much tinier than the nucleus of an atom. We can resolve things, the tiny little bits of nature. But we’re not investigating the atom, we’re investigating spacetime itself. And the way you bounce light or waves off of space is you crash them into each other.
And what comes out tells us about the makeup of the structure of the vacuum of space. And the Higgs was some crucial component of the vacuum, which was important in explaining the mass of certain types of particles, which allowed certain types of matter to exist, namely us. And so we had so much inference or indirect evidence that something was there, but we had no direct evidence. We couldn’t see it directly. And so we needed to see that directly just so we could say, ‘Yes, that’s what it is, and here are the properties and now we can move on to the next thing.’”
David Kaplin on the genesis and making of Particle Fever
How did you choose the scientists that are featured in Particle Fever? (PT)
Levinson: On the theoretical side, David was a natural selection. He was very good at explaining things, he was respected, he was passionate, and he was very good on camera. Savas was someone on whom the experiment was going to have great impact. And Nima was the young genius.
On the experimentalist side, it was a bigger task. At the beginning, everybody is like, “Yeah, I’ll be in a film.” But the reality is not very glamorous. Some people dropped out. And I knew I wanted my experimentalists to be there when things happened. [The Atlas experiment] has maybe 3000 physicists, and maybe a couple hundred are at CERN; most of them are at institutions all over the world.
A lot of things happened that were serendipitous for the film: Fabiola became the spokesperson for Atlas. Monica was all over, but she was in the control room a lot. Martin became the run-control coordinator, which means he was responsible for all the data coming from the control room. Mike Lamont became a huge asset, and in a bit of serendipity, he became the head of beam operations.
Kaplan: We interviewed and filmed a lot of people. Ultimately, it was what simplified the film, and what was the best footage we had. I do feel some chagrin about not covering [the CMS experiment] too. I am at Johns Hopkins, and we have an amazing CMS group here. They’re fine with it, but I still feel bad. But for the larger public it doesn’t matter.
Any interesting anecdotes about making the film? (PT)
Kaplan: It was painful, I’ll say that. In the beginning of the process, people were afraid to trust me in telling the story, because I didn’t have experience in making movies. Over time it transformed, but it was a gut-wrenching process that I don’t want to go through again in the near future.
Levinson: One thing that I think was unique is that we gave our characters high-end consumer cameras that we call blog cameras, so they could record themselves, almost like personal diaries. That allowed us to get some great, very candid reactions to what was happening. For example, days after the LHC started up, they had the accident. . . .
. . . when a failure in a weld joining cables between magnets led to the release of a large amount of helium into the magnet assemblies with catastrophic results. . . .
Levinson: I was back in the U.S., so until I could fly back to CERN, the blog cameras ended up being a way that we could get immediate, intimate reactions. It ended up also being a way to talk about the physics—which was one of the biggest challenges of the film: How do we explain the things that need to be explained without stopping the narrative?
The accident becomes a dramatic turn [in the film] right at the beginning. It allows us to re-create the anticipation.
You really followed every step of this process. Tell me how you were there for so much–years of this discovery. Did you ever think, what if this doesn’t work? What if we don’t find the Higgs? (PBS)
Kaplan: I personally was not after the Higgs. The story I was after was whatever the LHC would see, it would transform our understanding of things. It would have an impact on the specific theories that the theorists had all worked on. And that means, because it’s taken so long to get there, entire lifetimes of work would now be judged by this single set of data. And so whatever that was fine with me. Knowing that the LHC was going to break through a certain threshold and tell us some information, it was momentous, it was an emotionally impactful event. That was all that mattered to me. So the real struggle was, will we raise enough money to keep filming and keep filming until we can actually get to a point of discovery?
The rest of the filmmakers, specifically my director Mark Levinson, who’s really my partner in this, he was looking for endings all over the place…I always felt we needed to see something that changed what we know, that affected people like me. You have to ignore how irrational it is to think that you make a documentary film about science when you have no idea what the ending is going to be, and you just plunge ahead and believe that at some point you’re going to get a compelling story out of it. And that’s how I was thinking: it was just how to survive until that point.
What do you think is the drive behind man’s innate urge to understand the world around you? (PF)
As Savas says at the end of the film, the pursuit of these things, not really necessary for survival, are what make us human. There is a continuous line, beginning with the first symbolic representation of our “environment” with the cave paintings at Chauvet, to the sophisticated equations of physics that we think describe the deepest, inner workings of the universe. Fabiola quotes Dante as well about this: there is something fundamental about this that distinguishes us from animals. Man has always tried to make sense of the world around him and to understand his place in a vast universe.
What do you hope to achieve with the film? (PT)
Kaplan: I want to change something about the cultural dynamic associated with science. I think the problem is, the way science is exposed to the public is as a bunch of scientists talking about something and explaining it to you. I wanted to do something completely different, which is to make the experience of doing science accessible to everyone—that people can be scientists for 90 minutes. I think that breaking that barrier is the most important thing to do in terms of impacting how society looks at science. They need to look inside. They need to see that it’s part of the human endeavor. I want a cultural transformation.
How do you realize that aim? (PT)
Kaplan: The film should be shown at every high school. It’s a potentially inspiring film. It is dramatic, exciting and cool. And inadvertently, two of our stars are women. I am trying to create a curriculum around the film, so that it’s something that can be purchased by a school.
This whole project has been compared to the Manhattan Project or the moon launch. Is that an apt comparison? (PBS)
Kaplan: I don’t think particle physicists think of these monumental moments in terms of “this is the moment when we went from that to that.” They’re transformational, but 20 years ago, there were people who knew the Higgs existed and didn’t care less…There are even still people now who don’t believe we’ve seen the Higgs and it’s all a crock. Some of them are maybe a little crazy, but there’s a shift, a slow shift, and I think this was a momentous moment because it really took the entire world to do this. You’re no longer in a place where one country does it or one facility does it. You need that kind of support to do that. So it’s momentous because we all did it. And we’re all watching. Somehow the Higgs became something that non-physicists know about. I don’t know how that happened, but that’s a beautiful thing.
But we’re all relieved that we pushed through this energy. We know something about the Higgs. We know it’s there. We know its mass. That sort of removes 99.9% of the things we’ve been thinking about. And now we can expand the knowledge of that one set of consistent theories and see what’s next.
Higgs Boson for Dummies: A visit with particle physicist Daniel Whiteson at CERN. Posted at YouTube by PirateFish1.
Particle Fever opens on March 5. Consult mrmovietimes.com for showtimes in your area.