Spreading "Particle Fever"

Theral Timpson

On July 4 of 2012, we all watched with suspense for the outcome of one of the biggest and most expensive experiments in the history of science: the discovery of the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. What many of us were not aware of at the time was that an entire generation of physicists were hanging in there to see whether their careers had been in vain.

David Kaplan was one of those physicists. A professor of particle physics at Johns Hopkins University, he knew what was at stake. Fortunately for us, four years prior to that big day, Kaplan had the foresight and creativity to team up with another physicist, Mark Levinson, to document the historic discovery.

Particle Fever is the result of their collaboration, a stunningly beautiful documentary now in theaters. I cannot recommend the film highly enough to our audience. True, the film is about physics, not biology. But the theme of doing science at the highest level rings out for a hundred minutes, offering inspiration, explanation, and stunning images.

“Imagine being able to watch as Edison turned on the first light bulb,” says the film's website.

Official Trailer "Particle Fever"

I read the write-ups on the discovery of the Higgs back in 2012, but I was unaware of just how much was hanging on finding the particle. As the film explains, the Higgs boson lies at the center of what’s called the “standard model” of physics. Without the Higgs, our current understanding of physics would come unraveled.

Many of the themes we see in biology are present here as well. How much money should be spent to pursue basic science? What is the goal of such science?

One particularly satisfying scene was a talk by Kaplan at the Aspen Institute promoting and explaining the work at CERN. After his talk, Kaplan takes questions. An economist in the audience asks what will be the monetary reward in finding the Higgs boson. Kaplan replies, “perhaps none. But it might just lead us to understand everything.”

The film features real time interviews with six physicists, some working at CERN, others following from their classrooms. There is enough explanation and a terrific array of animations and illustrations to bring us deeply into the world of these physicists and see just what was at stake.

I was struck by the pure poetry that came from these scientists as they attempt to explain physics and how far our species has gone in defining and understanding our universe.

One of the star players in the film is Savas Dimopolous, a professor at Stanford. In an unscripted interview typical of the film he explains how mathematics has enabled humans to go great lengths in answering the fundamental questions of life.

“With mathematics,” he says, “it’s as though Nature is whispering to us.”

The documentary delivers a drama and plot as thick as any Hollywood action flick. For not only was the whole world watching to see whether the Higgs was there, there was another question, how much mass would the particle have.

Whether the particle would be light or heavy has vast implications into the future of the study of physics and our understanding of the universe. On the one hand, a light particle indicates a “supersymmetry” in the universe where all elementary particles are related. This theory shows a certain beautiful connectedness in the universe and teases us to go on discovering particles. On the other hand, a heavy Higgs boson indicates a multiverse situation, where constants in one universe may differ drastically and randomly from the constants in another universe. If this is the case, the study of physics may be at an end, as we cannot go into other universes to discover new particles.

10,000 scientists from over 100 countries engaged in the single pursuit of the Higgs boson. Going into the film, we already know that the particle will be found. But we’re on the edge of our seats as the implications of the discovery unfold. Nature, herself, offers the finest of plots.