The Large Hadron Collider is one of the greatest scientific achievements in history. Built with the purpose of discovering the Higgs Boson particle – controversially referred to as the God Particle – it is the largest, most complex,and most costly experimental facility ever built. Its budget was an astronomical 7.5 billion Euros. Over ten years, it was built in collaboration with more than ten thousand scientists, as well as hundreds of Universities and laboratories from all over the globe. Theoretical physicists from warring countries came together at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) to search for their God Particle. It is the Great Unifier, searching for the ultimate answers. Particle Fever, from scientist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson, takes you right to the front lines of one of the most riveting and terrifying scientific discoveries in history.
The film follows some of the greatest minds working in theoretical physics today producer and physicist Dr. David Kaplan; Dr. Nima Arkani-Hamed and Dr. Savas Dimopolous, colleagues in the multiverse theory; Dr. Fabiola Gianotti, and Dr. Monica Dunford, both of whom worked on the ATLAS project of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It’s through their experience of the LHC and the subsequent discovery of the Higgs Boson particle that we garner unprecedented access to this most remarkable of discoveries. Particle Fever succeeds on every level, the most significant of which is making the seemingly insurmountable subject of theoretical physics accessible to the layman, without neglecting the information or its weight.
Through physicists like Dr. Dunford, one of the youngest members of the ATLAS team, we get unfettered exhilaration. She carefully takes the viewer through a fundamental explanation of the LHC and its function in such a way that nothing is missed, and the magnitude of its significance remains in tact. She also manages one of the most apt descriptions of the excitement felt, not only across the scientific community on the day the LHC was activated, but the palpable sensation in the room itself when it went live: “the entire control room,” she says, “was like a group of six year olds” eagerly awaiting their imminent birthday.
Through skepticism, trepidation, and anticipation, Drs. Arkani-Hamed, Gianotti, and Dimopolous walk us through the potential outcomes of the LHC’s experiments. What will it mean for science? What will it mean for their careers? What will it mean for humanity?
Beyond the magnitude and scale of the LHC itself, we’re painted a broader picture: that of the vastness of scientific discovery, and the ongoing pursuit of knowledge. In the age of immediate information, there’s a palpable level of impatience that plagues the First World. We have the power to know everything that’s been discovered in the palm of our hands at all times. And yet there’s a distinct lack of respect for knowledge, and the process by which we make scientific discoveries in particular.
Particle Fever brings the very nature of science to the foreground, and forces the world to recognize that, in spite of our voracious pursuit of knowledge and fact, we may never be truly rewarded within our lifetime. Peter Higgs, for whom the Higgs Boson is named, and fellow researchers François Englert, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Richard Hagen, and Tom Kibble were fortunate enough to witness their theory supported by incontrovertible data. The moment the collected findings are made public is an emotional one, as these theorists, all in their eighties, carefully dab their moistened eyes. Those involved in the construction of the LHC will likely not be as fortunate to live to see proof of new unanswered questions.
In the hunt for the God Particle, we answered the fundamental question: does the Higgs Boson truly exist? We can now confirm that it does, with data-supported certainty. However, we find ourselves at a crossroads. The hope was that the result of this most seismic of scientific discoveries would shed more light on the fabric of the universe. It was supposed to settle debates regarding supersymmetry versus the chaotic, multiverse theory. Instead, the results have landed us in No Man’s Land. We are now at a point where anything goes, and grown men and women who have spent their lives refining these theories must now call all of their research into question, and reevaluate.
But this has always been the case. Scientific discovery is a long, arduous, and painful process. It is the product of massive amounts of trial and error, and hundreds of varied outcomes, the sum of which may shake the very foundation of what, as a global society, was thought to be fact. The scientific community knows this. They live this. The rest of the world, however, seems oddly oblivious to this fact.
The LHC went live on September 10th, 2008, with the whole world watching. As they successfully fired proton beams for the first time, the scientific community rejoiced that the device worked. The rest of the world waited impatiently for incontrovertible results, furiously tapping its foot and becoming frustrated when things didn’t go according to plan. Dr. Arkani-Hamed, one of the theoretical physicist who helped develop the multiverse notion of the universe, is outspoken throughout the documentary about this rather large lapse in judgment. It was a PR disaster. The popularity of the project put itself as much in the limelight as Brangelina’s latest adopted child. And then the world was watching. Millions of noses were now being squished against CERN’s windows, demanding both impossible levels of perfection and immediate answers. Answers which may, in reality, take decades to discover.
Levinson and producer Dr. Kaplan address this issue beautifully, offering keen insights into our current way of life. Particle Fever suggests that our voracious thirst for knowledge will likely never be quenched. It is a torch to be carried on by each generation, one after the next, towards an invisible horizon.
Dr. Dimopolous has spent his entire life waiting for answers. The information CERN has gathered about the Higgs Boson neither disproves nor overtly supports the theories he’s spent a lifetime formulating. The realization that those answers may never come is simultaneously devastating and liberating. So why do we continue to pursue science, he wonders? While discussions of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams punctuate his inner monologue, Arkani-Hamed muses about the nature of art and discovery. The beauty and wonder of everything that peppers our world, science included.
“The things that are the least important for our survival,” Dr. Dimopolous concludes, “are the very things that make us human.” And so we carry on, asking the questions we may never know the answers to, providing future generations with puzzles to solve and worlds of data to explore.
Particle Fever opens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema tomorrow, Friday, March 7th. For those of you bubbling with questions about the LHC and the Higgs Boson, you’re in luck! The Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics has signed on as a presenting partner for the film. As a result, their physicists – a number of whom worked on the LHC – will be at the Bloor cinema for post-screening Question and Answer sessions on opening night, March 7th, as well as March 12th and 20th. Be sure to get your tickets, and don’t be afraid to ask your questions!