Particle Fever (2013)
July 31, 2014 7:24 AM - Subscribe

The efforts of theoretical physicists around the world come to fruition at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where experimental physicists bring their theories to life on the largest scale possible. Particle Fever tracks passionate scientists from both camps from 2008 to 2012, as the LHC fires up in an effort to discover the Higgs boson -- an elusive particle that may hold the key to our understanding of the universe, not to mention the future of physical science itself.

From the press notes:

Four years prior to the outcome of the LHC experiment, Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker, joined forces with Johns Hopkins University professor of particle physics David Kaplan, who saw the dramatic potential behind the world’s largest experiment. The filmmaking team gained unprecedented access at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, in order to narrate the very human story taking place underlying a massive venture. Editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Godfather trilogy) masterfully edited Particle Fever with an incredible knowledge of filmmaking and a keen understanding of physics, producing a film that is as dramatic and informative as it is visually stunning. Together the filmmakers, along with the six subjects take you through the theories behind the science and the consequences for humanity.

I had actually followed the story of the LHC with some interest, but wasn't sure how compelling a film about the scientists involved might be. I perked up considerably when I saw Walter Murch's name in the opening credits and by the time the film was over I had actually cried a little bit. Science!

The film is available for streaming over Netflix, or you can do the filmmakers a favor and pay them to stream it via the official website.
posted by Mothlight (14 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for the filmmaker link, I love to be able to give back.

I wonder if things would have turned out as well (actually, not just this very well put together film) if we hadn't nuked the one in Texas.

Also - comic sans in the Atlas presentation. Eeek! ;)
posted by tilde at 7:35 AM on July 31, 2014

Just watched this, coincidentally. I liked it a lot, and felt that it tied together the science with the human politics and emotions that go into science.

I walked away with a question: how does proof of a multiverse theory signal an end to physics? Did I misunderstand that? If not, then what does that mean?
posted by codacorolla at 8:28 AM on July 31, 2014

This is on now at the Melbourne Film Festival but tickets were sold out -- can't wait to see it.
posted by prettypretty at 4:33 PM on July 31, 2014

I don't have the physics chops to answer your question, Codacorolla, but there seems to be some controversy over the relationship between the Higgs particle and a multiverse theory that the film advances. Physicist Peter Woit at Columbia wrote a blog post that calls the film's treatment of the multiverse theory "a really bad idea."

As it was advanced in the film, my reading was that the theory was that if Super Symmetry is correct, there should be a ton of undiscovered particles for us to find, presumably learning a little bit more about how the universe works as we continue to break new ground. But if the multiverse theory is correct, then there may not be more particles in our universe yet to be discovered, and all of the missing pieces of the big life-the-universe-and-everything puzzle are stuck bouncing around in other universes where we will never be able to get at them. Thus physics as we know it comes to a screeching halt and our understanding is forever limited. (Well, unless and until we figure out a way to access other universes, I guess.)
posted by Mothlight at 7:43 PM on July 31, 2014

Oh my goodness, I haven't watched it yet, but I am SO EXCITED it's on Netflix now. I've been told by a couple of folks that my husband is on screen in a few shots, which is about the most excitement I think I can stand without medical supervision on hand! I'm seriously tempted to have a special screening at our place for this.
posted by Diagonalize at 5:52 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was a great movie. It really managed to put a human face on an almost inconceivably vast undertaking. Such adorable nerds! I was also really stuck by the elderly physicists who had spent their whole lives working on theories that were going to be proven or disproven by these experiments. I can't imagine that kind of a career, with such a delayed payoff, if at all.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:50 AM on August 3, 2014

I'm so glad people are enjoying this movie. I loved it, and I think it does a wonderful job of humanizing the massive undertaking that is the LHC and the hunt for the Higgs. Also, a bunch of my colleagues are "producers," in that they gave David Kaplan money to get it made, and are listed as such. David himself spent a huge amount of his own money to make this movie; so buy this movie, because these are good people who worked hard to get it made.

Ironically, as I'm theorist, I like the experimental bits more than the theorists'. This movie is not really attempting to teach you about the Higgs, or the theories that are being discussed, but rather it's a human story, and that human story is more interesting to me for the people who have spent years building something. Watching experimentalists achieve what they did is just makes me happy.

In fairness, some of my (relatively minor) gripe about the theory end of things in the movie is that you can walk away from the movie thinking that the only theories we are thinking about are supersymmetry and the multiverse. That's a more than a bit of a simplification, but it's a bit of a inside baseball complaint.

The idea with supersymmetry is that every particle gets a superpartner with opposite spin-statistics. This stabilizes the Higgs mass, because without supersymmetry we'd expect the Higgs mass to be close to the heaviest scale of relevance in physics -- which barring some conspiracy (which in physics we call a symmetry) should be the scale at which gravity gets strong. This is the Planck scale, and 17 orders of magnitude above the Higgs scale. I've written several longer comments on this on the Blue in the past, see here and here. Along with the Higgs, such models predict superpartners of the Standard Model particles, all with masses close to the Higgs (or else the stabilization doesn't work as neatly), some of which would be easier to produce and find at the LHC than the Higgs itself. It also predicts at least two Higgses, each with properties that deviate from the Standard Model prediction.

Under the type of supersymmetry that was predicted in the decades before the LHC turn-on, we have a prediction that the lightest Higgs mass is close to 90 GeV, plus corrections that can push it a bit heavier. The heavier you go, the more tuned you have to make the supersymmetric model, and the less "natural" the theory is. 125 or 126 GeV (the measured mass of the Higgs at the moment), is right at the upper edge of what can be done in standard supersymmetry, and so is making us all uncomfortable.

Going to the other end of what's possible, you can take certain ideas about what could have driven the Big Bang, ideas of inflation (which I've talked about here), and suggest that our visible Universe is one part of a much larger "Multiverse." This is a separate idea from the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, by the way. This just says that the universe (as in all that there is) is so much larger than the Universe we can see, and some places, so far away that we can never see them because light has not had time to travel between there and here, the laws of physics are different. In that case, most of the time the Higgs will be much heavier than the 125 GeV we measure it to be, but if we (chemical-based lifeforms relying on energy on nuclear-powered stars for life) cannot live in those "universes" because they are just inamicable to life (because stars can't form, or chemistry is too boring, or the Universe expands too fast, or whatever), then no one ever measures those big Higgs masses, and so the small mass we see isn't due to a dynamical "physics" reason, but just because if it wasn't small we all wouldn't be around to ask the question. Sort of like a why you shouldn't ask why you aren't floating in deep space instead of on a planet like Earth with an atmosphere. Sure, there's way more deep space, so by pure statistics you should find yourself there, but if you did, you'd be dead, and therefore wouldn't be asking the question. It's a selection effect.

The problem is that, if this is how physics works, it will be very hard to make predictions. All we will be able to say is that, if a parameter having a certain value means the Universe would be deadly to life, we won't measure it to be that value. But how do you define life, how do you figure out what's necessary for it and what isn't? That's what we mean by the end of physics. Not that physics isn't a consistent set of laws, just that measurements of one set of properties won't give a good idea of the next set of physical laws.

Personally, I believe that the lack of superpartners or other new physics at the LHC is troubling, but all that I am willing to say for certain right now is that the LHC is telling us is that, if supersymmetry exists, it isn't the supersymmetry as expected in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. We've had a long time to think about what will be discovered, but we lacked experimental data. There are many types of supersymmetry that we cannot yet see at the LHC, and are consistent with the Higgs as measured. They are somewhat more complicated, but no promised us that the Universe would be simple. I'm both optimistic and scared about the upcoming LHC run; optimistic in that I do think there is new physics to be found, scared because we only have a limited amount of time to find it, and I hope we are up to the challenge.

So... yeah. As usual this comment got away from me for a bit there. Bringing it back to Particle Fever, David and company did a great job in this movie. I love the excitement and effort and achievement on display, and I hope people get to feel a little bit of the joy of discovery. No movie is going to capture the physics we are hoping to test; it is a bit complicated. But that wasn't the point, and if the movie gets people interested in finding out more, than it has done more than enough.
posted by physicsmatt at 8:30 PM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

That's great physicsmatt, thanks so much.
posted by codacorolla at 7:04 AM on August 6, 2014

Documentaries like this -- showing people in the height of their profession at the height of their careers -- always make me come away feeling a little less satisfied with my 'great' days at work, and a little less bummed about my bad ones.

There were so many things I loved about this film:

* The 'first beam' scene was gut-wrenching. I think that anyone who's done a technology demo knows that feeling. So much effort and complexity to get that first little 'bloop!' I imagine the Sputnik folks felt the same way.
* The way David Kaplan handled the "what's the ROI of the LHC?" question from the economist. Maybe everything, maybe nothing.
* The context-less cues of the impending magnet quench. I loved the 'trouble lurks beneath' feeling of it. Such great editing!
* Learning how many of the folks came into physics in the first place. Some seemed born to do it, but many others seemed to bump into it while running away from something else.
posted by JohnFredra at 8:26 AM on August 7, 2014

I really enjoyed this documentary. What was palpable was this sense of shared endeavour among so many people all scattered across the world. I work in the sciences, but it' s pretty much me and my ideas and the few collaborations, and I felt a real sense of envy to witness how great collaboration can be.
posted by dhruva at 1:52 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

A really lovely, well-made film. Of the many great little moments, I love when the two theorists just start playing ping pong by bouncing the ball off the wall. I also really enjoyed the tension of the announcements. When I saw Higgs was at the big announcement of the results, I had a great moment of meta-tension where I was excited to see the results of the announcement, for myself and the scientists and I was nervous for the filmmakers, because as the child of documentarians and a non-practicing film school dude, all I could think was "Get his face, oh man, I hope they have a shot of Higgs when the announcement is made." They did, thankfully.
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:03 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Divine_Wino: Of the many great little moments, I love when the two theorists just start playing ping pong by bouncing the ball off the wall.

Oh yes. It was just the nerdiest of nerd moves (I mean that in the best possible way), and you could just see their brains kick into a higher gear as they considered all the implications of the ping-pong multiverse.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:22 AM on August 11, 2014

I had high hopes, but I didn't think was really anything special compared to a standard Nova / Horizons documentary. It just seemed all over the place, and didn't really use its 99 minute runtime very efficiently. How many shots do we need of that one scientist biking to work?
posted by smackfu at 11:03 AM on August 11, 2014

(Oh, I will say I was very impressed that they had all that footage showing reactions when they had the accident shortly after they started up. Rare to see that kind of thing.)
posted by smackfu at 11:07 AM on August 11, 2014

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