Full disclosure: I cried at a movie about particle physics. And I wasn’t alone. As the film showed footage of the July 4, 2012 announcement of the Higgs boson discovery, I noticed the woman next to me wiping her eyes just as I was doing the same.
I was at a screening of the new documentary Particle Fever at the New York Film Festival on October 2. The movie tracks the odyssey of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the “largest machine ever built by humans,” as one physicist explained onscreen. The story begins in 2008, before the opening of the giant particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland, and culminates in the announcement last summer that the project had found proof of the long-theorized Higgs boson, which is responsible for giving particles their mass.
It’s a story that has had no shortage of press attention, a story you might think you already know. But Particle Fever shows the human drama behind the physics drama in a way that is hard to experience if you weren’t actually there in the control room when the accelerator beams were first turned on, or in the great lecture hall when the conclusive data were first projected on the wall.
The film makes the smart choice of following a few charismatic researchers with the miraculous ability to talk about particle physics in ways that make both their meaning and their enthusiasm clear. We are with them before they flip the “on” switch for the first time to smash beams of particles together in underground caverns at near light speed, and we are with them when the machine breaks just nine days later. We feel with them the exhilaration of finally getting the accelerator running again, and the agonizing anticipation of waiting to hear the first results. And finally, even though we already know what will happen, we watch with baited breath and fast-beating hearts the presentation of data proving the existence of the particle the machine was built to find. When Peter Higgs, who predicted the Higgs boson almost 50 years earlier, stands up to raucous applause, he is crying, and so was I.
In some ways, the story of the film parallels the story of the LHC. Both projects required a leap of faith at the beginning, a commitment for seeing the journey through though the results were never assured. The director, Mark Levinson, a physicist-turned-film creator, teamed up with David Kaplan, a former film student turned particle physicist, to document the story of the $4.75 billion LHC before it opened. With stakes this high, the potential for drama was clear, but the filmmakers did not anticipate that the machine would enable such stunning—and frustrating and mysterious and exciting—results in 2012, or that the arc of its progress would produce such delicious drama for the screen. “Along the way there really was a question of how long do you keep going, waiting for results,” Levinson says. “We didn’t know what the end was going to be, but the story cooperated. We ended up with just the most perfect ending.”
The movie isn’t a simple feel-good story of triumph. By the time the Higgs boson is found, the audience feels almost as invested in what its mass will be as the waiting physicists, because we’ve heard from camps hoping for one outcome or another. We see how any discovery opens new doors and closes others, and we feel for the scientists whose predictions will never be borne out as Higgs’ was.
And while the film celebrates the discovery of the Higgs boson, it makes clear that more is expected from the LHC. “The worst-case scenario would be Higgs and Higgs only,” physicist Monica Dunford said in the film, describing the fallout if the accelerator doesn’t reveal any more particles beyond those predicted by the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. “If it doesn’t find any new particles, not only have we missed something, but we may never know how to proceed,” Kaplan said. Thus far, however, no significant signs of anything else have appeared. When the LHC turns on again in 2015, after a hiatus for upgrades, the pressure will be on for it to produce particles that help fill the cracks in current theories and point the way toward a newer, fuller picture of how the universe works.
Ultimately, the film honors the scientists’ ability to sacrifice their personal agendas and pet theories in the pursuit of basic truths. “I watch our political leaders on television, and I think, wow, truth has zero social capital,” Kaplan says. “But [at the LHC] here’s a bunch of people that are in the pursuit of something so pure. We are not going to get famous or rich, but we all feel great when we know something that’s true.”
Particle Fever is due to open in theaters in March 2014.