Science and math are the bane of my existence: After biology and calculus, it was all downhill for me. So, when I heard that the Whitney Humanities Center was screening “Particle Fever,” an independent documentary about physics, I felt conflicted. I love movies, but my high school physics class gave me a brain aneurysm. In the end, I shrugged my shoulders and decided to watch it, hoping to learn something new. Not only did I find “Particle Fever” to be educational, but it was also funny and mostly accessible.
In “Particle Fever,” physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson follows a team of scientists as they work with the Large Hadron Collider and search for the Higgs boson — aka the “God Particle,” which supposedly holds the key to understanding the origin of all matter. This is something out of an epic science-fiction picture, and indeed, the film’s introduction to the LHC makes you feel the magnitude of the endeavor. In wide, high angle shots, the machine looms over the hundreds of scientists: Compared to it, they look like ants.
That being said, a film just about the LHC wouldn’t be enough for the average filmgoer. We need the human element to emotionally invest us in the story. Wisely, then, the documentary follows a couple of scientists with compelling personalities.
There’s David Kaplan, the theoretical physicist (and film producer, who approached Levinson with the documentary idea) who introduces us to the LHC and its history while peppering the picture with dry humor. During a lecture on the significance of the LHC, a self-described economist asks Kaplan “What’s the point? What’s the financial gain?”
“What is it good for? Could be nothing except understanding everything,” Kaplan replies.
Post-doctorate Monica Dunford is the one who, throughout the film, excitedly tries to explain the whole experiment to us commoners using simplified physics concepts. She’s also the most energetic. When the LHC fires its first particle beam, she exclaims, “We rock! First beam? We destroyed that shit!”
In contrast, theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed remains more cautious about the whole situation. He contemplates whether the Higgs Boson supports the idea of intelligent design or of sheer randomness. If it is the latter, he posits that our whole world is built on chaos. If that’s the case, Kaplan responds, “In a sense, it’s the end of physics.”
These are heavy questions that the film doesn’t answer — and how can it? The documentary doesn’t linger on the philosophical for too long. It knows that its strengths lie in humanizing physics. And it does that well, for the most part. In what other documentary would you see physicists popping champagne bottles in celebration of colliding particles? Or rapping physicists, clothed in lab coats and Einstein masks, spitting rhymes about the LHC?
Still, we eventually have to dive into all of the jargon and equations that come with physics. Animations by MK12 Creative Studio attempt to translate the complex concepts into colorful illustrations complete with streamlined designs, but as informative as they were, they couldn’t make sense of all these ideas. About half way into the movie, the discussions of variables and constants began to really test my patience.
The musical score by Robert Miller was also frustrating. Too often, the score throws subtlety out the window and bombards the audience with violins and drums, overdoing the drama when the visuals are already dramatic enough. This kind of scoring may work in a Hollywood action flick or thriller, but it doesn’t work in this documentary. At other times, the score sounds too bouncy and silly, something out of a cartoon short.
Following the screening, New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer ’87 moderated a discussion with Levinson, Kaplan, film producers Carla Solomon ’75 and Andrea Miller ’75, and physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who was featured in the documentary. The panel expressed their hopes that the film would reach a wide audience via word of mouth and, as Levinson put it, “convey the excitement of the scientific community.” And indeed, despite its flaws, “Particle Fever” is the kind of film that can help those ignorant of science grow more comfortable with it. Who knows — maybe if “Particle Fever” was around when I was growing up, I would have become one of those rockstar physicists!