I just had an opportunity to catch the new documentary, Particle Fever, which will be opening in theaters on March 5. The brainchild of Johns Hopkins physics professor David Kaplan and physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson, the film documents the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland designed to test theories about particle physics, most famously the elusive Higgs boson, a particle whose existence would help answer long-unsolved questions about how the universe works—or at least the universe as explained by the Standard Model in physics.
That I was even able to make it to the end of that last paragraph is a testament to the film’s ability to engage its audience in the world of ideas—and not just ideas, but highly abstract ideas that are most precisely expressed as equations. Before stumbling into this film, I knew nothing about the LHC, the Higgs boson, or the Standard Model—let alone the implications of the New Physics. My understanding of the nature of matter stopped evolving somewhere in the sixth grade when we encountered protons, neutrons, and electrons. Particles like quarks and leptons and neutrinos and bosons no doubt had not been discovered, or, if they had, had not reached grammar school textbooks. By the time they did, my interest in the origins of the universe had faded—or, more accurately, had been channeled into science fiction. (In retrospect, the obsessiveness with which I devoured the works of Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, McCaffrey, Heinlein, Le Guin, Russ, and countless others probably speaks volumes about curiosity unfulfilled).
So it is even more remarkable that I walked out of the film with an appreciation of what the LHC scientists accomplished on that day in the summer of 2012, when two particle beams accelerated to near light speed, smashed into one another and produced effects that allowed scientists to identify the Higgs boson, a particle theorized in 1964 as the “glue” holding together, well, essentially everything.
But what Particle Fever did so well, in my view, was to put a human face to that discovery. By focusing on six scientists, at different points in their career, with different stakes in the outcome of the experiment, the film allowed us to engage, just a little bit, in the thrill of intellectual inquiry. In fact, Particle Fever makes the argument—convincingly—that science—if understood as the compelling need to understand the world we find ourselves inhabiting—is a fundamental human need, as basic to us as food, or water, or art, or music. The film celebrated what human desire can achieve—because only an outsized desire could muster the resources to assemble the largest machine in human history simply to test an idea.
When CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research responsible for running the LHC) announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, science evangelist Ainissa Ramirez (my latest Twitter addiction) lamented what she viewed as a missed opportunity to communicate the significance of what is probably the greatest scientific discovery of our lifetimes. She makes a convincing case that the discovery should have started a more profound conversation between scientists and the public.
Particle Fever takes an important step toward closing that gap. It allows us to understand that the physicist’s preoccupations are not so alien to our own, but indeed something that we, as human beings, all share and, should we be willing to, can embrace: the desire that sparks human endeavor.