Particle Fever – An Educational and Uplifting Documentary

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David Kaplan, a professor of theoretical particle physics (has hosted National Geographic Science programs), states in one of his speech that the construction of Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is just as huge an accomplishment as mankind’s construction of pyramids, or the moon landing. Those who gawked at the structure of pyramid or footage of moon landing might not feel the same way about LHC, possibly because of the way its been warned of as ‘doomsday machine’ by a section of astrophysicists (and media), and also because it is hard for a layperson to understand what LHC does. It is not easy to understand the data the machine produces and the mathematical models that have helped to produce such data. Of course, we can gawk at how thousands of scientific minds have come together for a largest and most expensive scientific experiment, but there is no way to understand its implications.

Director Mark Levinson’s in his documentary “Particle Fever” (2013) however does an excellent job in explaining the LHC-related scientific issues in an easily accessible way for the general audience. Levinson has earned a doctoral degree in particle physics and he has joined with David Kaplan (producer of this documentary) have succeeded to a level in turning the abstract scientific concepts (or genius-level physics concepts) into tangible ones, which makes us to share the excitement of the scientific minds. The documentary starts in the CERN campus – European Center for Research in Particle Physics – situted in Geneva, and we glimpse at the statue of Shiva (gifted by Indian government to CERN), symbolizing the God’s dance of creation and destruction.

Lord Shiva Statue at CERN campus

Lord Shiva Statue at CERN campus

The LHC does look like some underground facility constructed by James Bond villain, but through these seven-story tall & 17 mile-long ring protons, powered by seven-ton super-conducting magnetos, will be sent in opposite directions at the same time, close to the speed of light. The resulting collision will sort of re-create the conditions that just existed after the ‘Big Bang’. However, the foremost agenda in this expensive experiment is to find the elusive & mysterious Higgs particle (also known as ‘God Particle’), which in the long run would help mankind to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos. The experiment might also prove which of the most coveted scientific theories are correct: ‘Super Symmetry’ or ever-expanding ‘multi-verse’ (chaos and randomness). But, what keeps us engaged is not just the simplified explanation of what happens inside LHC. The most terrific aspect of the documentary is the human story; the way Levinson concentrates on the personal dramas, idealism, and brilliance of the scientific minds.

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Levinson follows six physicists, drawn evenly from the collaborative-but-also-separate experimental and theorist fields. The best moments come from these six individuals, who perfectly convey the thrill and significance of their past achievements and future experiments. Stanford Physicist Savas Dimopoulos states how a career in science is about being wrong over and over, and still continuing to learn from those errors. Savas and another old physicist, at some later point, converse about on how they have spent more than 30 years of their life in pursuing a theoretical model, which might eventually be proven wrong or might get stuck without sufficient information. Nevertheless, scientists like Savas aren’t bothered by failure or afraid of being proven wrong by experimentalists. The way they brush up their failures and proceeds forward is definitely a worthwhile lesson for our young minds.

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Another best moment comes early in the documentary, when Kaplan is addressing a public forum. A economist asks a question about the economic benefits of finding the Higgs particle or understanding the basic laws of nature. Kaplan answers that he doesn’t have any idea about the benefits, and points out the discovery of radio waves (the commercial importance of radio waves couldn’t be grasped when it was first discovered). He finishes by saying that “basic science for big breakthroughs needs to occur at a level where you’re not asking ‘what is the economic gain?”. Although at times it becomes hard to grasp the thrill of sciences discussed, Levinson makes it worthwhile to watch the humble practitioners of science.

Levinson pictures a fine portrait of the physicists’ lives and the candid conversations provides some insights on what drives these people to try again and again. Savas recalls, how he cried at his childhood, when his mother talked about a paradise where humans could stay forever. He says, ‘the thought of something infinite or indefinite scares me’. For some, may be the fear of infinite or chaos of the universe forces to pursue the illuminating knowledge. It is also exciting to see young experimental physicists like Dunford, who are just there for the thrill of discovering something new. The documentary gets a well-earned moving ending, as the results of experiments are exhibited on July 4, 2012. Among the packed auditorium crowd, Peter Higgs himself sits and listens to the experimental discovery of the elusive Higgs particle. At the end of presentation, we see him removing the glass and dabbing his eyes.

Theorists (above) and Experimentalists (below)

Theorists (above) and Experimentalists (below)

“Particle Fever” (100 minutes) is a very accessible and attractive documentary on the advance, genius-level scientific theories. Apart from clarifying some of the abstruse concepts, it sheds light on what it means to be a scientist.

 

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