Those still in the dark (like me) about the meaning of the Higgs boson — the so-called “God” particle — discovered by the Large Hadron Collider on July 4, 2012, might not understand it any better after watching “Particle Fever,’’ Mark Levinson’s exuberant documentary. But then again, the physicists behind the project aren’t sure what to make of it, either. Levinson focuses on six among the thousands that made it possible, and their profiles and personal dramas prove more illuminating than the arcane physics involved, however hard the film struggles to illustrate these invisible, subatomic realities with animation and other effects. The enthusiasm, idealism, and cheerful brilliance of the six subjects convey the thrill, if not the full significance, of this scientific breakthrough.
Their idealism contrasts with the opacity of US politicians who vetoed building a larger version of the collider in this country. A news clip of a congressman declaring that discovering the secret of the universe is a very low priority makes a sad commentary on the narrow-mindedness of some of our elected officials. But the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) took up the slack, and over a period of 10 years built outside Geneva “the largest machine made by man,” as theoretical physicist (and the film’s producer) David Kaplan describes it. Kaplan is a model of everyone’s favorite professor, explaining with clarity some of the abstruse concepts.
Though vastly complex (Monica Dunford, an experimental physicist, describes it as a “five-story wrist watch”), the collider consists basically of a 17-mile-long doughnut, through which particles are beamed in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. When they smash into one another an explosion of smaller particles results. One of these bits, it is hoped, will be the Higgs boson, which will be the missing piece of the standard theory and support the hypothesis of super symmetry . . .
That’s about as far as I can follow it. A key point, though, is that all the scientists profiled have staked their careers on this one discovery. For some, like Stanford physicist Savas Dimopoulos, it’s been as long as three decades. If the Higgs turns out to have a weight above a certain number, then the multi-universe theory (which sounds kind of fun to me) prevails and all their work is for naught. If it is a lower number, then super symmetry prevails and they’ve been on the right track. So excitement builds as the collider is first tested, and the spot of light and ping indicating success are greeted with cheers. Setbacks follow, media pressure builds, and when the Higgs is finally discovered (with a display of corny animated effects backed by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”), the results prove — inconclusive.
Which is fine for everyone, because it means more work must be done. What drives these people? Perhaps the most candid explanation comes from Dimopoulos. When he was a child, he recalls, his mother told him that if he was good he would go to Paradise and stay there forever. “I started crying,” he says. “The thought of something infinite scared me.” Projects like this transform fear into knowledge.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.