AT SOME POINT during Particle Fever, one of the CERN scientists involved in the first round of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider describes the finding of the Higgs boson or ‘God’ particle as having equal importance to the first moon landing, which might strike anyone who has stared into the sky at night as something of a bold claim. This scientist suggests the reason why the experiments weren’t seen that way by the public at the time is because they were a lot less glamorous than stepping out onto a foreign celestial body and plunging a flag into the dust and then, there was the small matter of trying to explain to a public largely uninformed on the subject what the hell they were doing. There isn’t much we can do to remedy that now, of course, unless time travel is next on the to-do list at CERN. If you see Particle Fever, it’ll occur you to at some point that if director Mark Levinson and the merry band of physicists he speaks to had got together before those scientists started smashing protons into each other, the public impression might have been a little different. And maybe they would later decide that scientist was right.
There are two main narrative threads that run through the film. The first concerns the team of experimental and theoretical physicists at CERN involved in the experiments at the LHC and their attempts to get it working after the 2007 helium leak complicates things by damaging the electromagnets. In the second, Nima Arkani-Hamed and his mentor, Savas Dimopoulos––both war refugees, both brilliant, both charming, and both claiming to be able to predict the mass of the Higgs boson––offer up and argue the case for two rival theories.
The film’s main success is that it makes complicated concepts relating to physics simple and understandable even to those least interested in and least comfortable with science. Take, by way of an example, the running, rowing, cycling postdoctoral fellow Monica Dunford’s description of the LHC.’It’s what any child would design as an experiment,’ she says, ‘you take two things, and you smash them together.’
Neither of these two threads sound particularly thrilling, and they aren’t; they are, however, absolutely fascinating. Particle Fever is a film in which the subject is so interesting that it simply needs to be revealed and allowed to shine, and any departure from this process––and there are departures in Particle Fever––are largely unwelcome.
The film’s main success is that it makes complicated concepts relating to physics simple and understandable even to those least interested in and least comfortable with science. Take, by way of an example, the runner-rower-cyclist and postdoctoral fellow Monica Dunford’s description of the LHC.’It’s what any child would design as an experiment,’ she says, ‘you take two things, and you smash them together.’ She goes on to explain articulately how this famous seventeen-mile ring allows two beams of protons to gather speed until they almost reach the speed of light; the beams are then smashed together at four different points and voila, out tumbles the Higgs.
Monica emerges as the star of Particle Fever, but there are various scientists worth mentioning. Our guide during our little adventure into the depths of the LHC is Mark Kaplan, the witty, wild-haired film’s producer; other characters include rock-star scientist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who says, memorably, that the hype surrounding the LHC is ‘approximately accurate’, and Renaissance woman Fabiola Gianotti, a trained classical pianist who oversees one of the LHC’s main experiments. All of these figures are hugely likeable and have the sort of enthusiasm for their field that is infectious. They explain concepts like multiverse and supersymmetry theory without so much as a hint of academic snobbery, and when their words fail completely to illuminate an idea, Levinson fills the gaps with colourful visualisations that only rarely cross the line and find themselves in the tacky random-floating-equation territory of films like A Beautiful Mind.
Levinson fills the gaps with colourful visualisations that only rarely cross the line and find themselves in the tacky random-floating-equation territory of films like A Beautiful Mind.
Sometimes Particle Fever drags. Scenes, for instance, in which scientists sit around tables and have discussions could be axed, and though the film owes a lot to the towering talent of Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch, it never really develops into the dramatic feature that it would like to be. If there is a single glaring weakness it’s director Mark Levinson’s insistent attempts to create tension where there really isn’t much to work with or try to evoke a sense of ecstasy or awe by resorting to overused, uplifting classical staples such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which frankly hasn’t recovered from its use in the trailer for Die Hard: Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?.
But there’s a lot to like about Particle Fever, importantly, I think, the fact that it shows the world of scientific research to be as reliant on creativity and curiosity as on the hard empirical stuff.