Physics is Catching in ‘Particle Fever’

Early in Particle Fever a group of excited scientists and press gather at CERN in Switzerland to witness the first test of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

A man counts down to one. Nothing happens. He counts down again, and this time a screen blips. Everyone in the room cheers and applauds. They understand what the blip means, truly means, even though many in the documentary-viewing audience, myself included, might be scratching their heads in uncertainty.

This scene at once shows the excitement of the experiments and the difficulty facing Particle Fever in visualizing and explaining its subject. Mark A. Levinson’s 2013 documentary adopts a combination of enthusiastic physicists, animations, and actuality footage as it follows CERN scientists on their journey through the initial experiment, some troubles, another run, and some results that hopefully answer the big questions driving the field of physics.

Physicists David Kaplan, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos, and Monica Dunford explain some of the key ideas informing the field of physics and the significance of the LHC. Animations visualize their explanations of the more theoretical concepts without too much math. Both, however, seem only to skim the surface of the concepts presented.

The basic facts about the LHC are easier to comprehend, though not quite their scale. Dunford describes it as “a five-story Swiss watch.” It took decades to build by hand, and 100,000 computers around the world process the data from it. Shots show the height and its complex parts, but the interviews are necessary to explain what it all means.

The elusive goal? Finding the Higgs Boson, which seems the missing piece to the physics puzzle. While not quite the same as Indiana Jones pursuing the Holy Grail, all the scientists convey why this discovery is important to the field and what it means going forward.

Though I feel like I need to read a book or five on particle physics now, the journey structure and the Higgs Boson grail make Particle Fever an accessible and engaging documentary to watch.

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