Finding The God Particle

Particle Fever is a new documentary that follows the scientists who worked with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider for four years until July 4, 2012, when they announced the discovery of the long-theorized Higgs boson, or “God particle.” Josh Modell explains what was at stake for the scientists depicted:

After years and years of meticulous planning and building—from both the big-dreaming theoretical physicists and their more down-to-earth counterparts, the experimental physicists—the Collider came online in 2008. To understand what an extraordinary achievement the construction of this massive thing was, imagine the inside of a computer blown up to five stories, complete with a 17-mile circular underground track.

What’s harder to convey, and Particle Fever does its best to do so, is the real-world importance of the Higgs particle itself. Scientists know it will inform their field forever—or, if it doesn’t exist, disprove everything they know. The mass of the Higgs is what it all comes down to. If it’s heavier, that suggests the existence of a chaotic “multiverse,” exploding the field of physics. If it’s lighter, it suggests that theories of orderly “supersymmetry” are more likely.

The film focuses on the human aspects of science:

[Director Mark] Levinson—whose film background consists of dramatic narratives—had one requirement. “I did not want to make a science documentary about particle physics,” Levinson says. “I wanted to make a dramatic character-oriented film that could engage people in a unique period in the history of science.”

Russell Brandom appreciates the chance to witness the scientists’ enthusiasm:

Tracking the scientists from the collider launch onward, you can see them growing more confident with each test. After the first energy beam successfully circulates through the collider ring, the joy is tangible. “It worked. It just worked. And there are so few times in life when it just works,” gushes physicist Monica Dunford. “We rocked! The first beam? We destroyed that shit.”

Christy Lemire finds the film “accessible but fun, with a surprisingly emotional payoff at the end”:

Heady stuff, indeed. But “Particle Fever” also works on a purely visual, visceral level. It’s shot beautifully, with crisp, vibrant footage of not just the collider itself—which resembles a buzzing, whirring, seven-story stained glass window—but also of the striking landscape surrounding the lab. The snow-covered French Alps against a baby-blue sky are especially spectacular.

And Mark Moring thinks that “especially [for] those interested in the intersection between faith and science, it’s a fascinating film”:

The field of particle physics is incredibly complex and difficult to understand, but the filmmakers do an admirable job of “dumbing it down” for a lay audience while also communicating challenging ideas. It finds a nice balance, and makes for not only an entertaining 99 minutes, but quite educational and thought-provoking as well. Faith-based audiences will especially appreciate wrestling with spiritual questions about the origins of the universe while getting a glimpse into the science behind it all.

Previous Dish on the Higgs boson here, here, and here.