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Review: 'Particle Fever' is another reminder that science is totally awesome

"Particle Fever" hangs with scientists as they run (and run again) the Large Hadron Collider to test for the elusive and game-changing Higgs boson particle.

"Particle Fever" observes as physicists test for the elusive Hoggs boson particle. Credit: CERN "Particle Fever" observes as physicists test for the elusive Hoggs boson particle.
Credit: CERN

'Particle Fever'
Director: Mark Levinson
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

Science doesn’t happen fast. In fact, it’s painfully, exhaustingly slow, often interrupted by unforeseen setbacks and frustrations. This is to say it doesn’t lend itself easily to drama. One exception is the search for the elusive Higgs boson particle — the one major (and central) theorized particle that, up until last year, wasn’t found. (It's also known as the "God particle," a term that enrages nearly all physicists.) Because this is science, it’s only been “strongly” indicated that it was found. But its discovery was relatively, as far as science goes, fast. All physicists had to do was turn on a machine…that took four decades to get funding for…and which broke down when it first ran…and then wound up not ready to run again for another five years. Even the filmable scientific discoveries take forever.

Still, a documentary crew were there for all of it. In “Particle Fever,” we see science, and scientists — excitable, anxious, adorably nerdy scientists — freaking out as they’re about to fire up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), one of the largest machines ever built by man. (In a very scientist way of articulating their glee, one offers this sound-byte: “The hype is approximately accurate.”) Their excitement is double-edged: The experiment could go either way, meaning it could validate predictions, some of which many have worked on for their entire careers, or it could invalidate them, meaning they’ve essentially wasted their lives.

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That mix of anxiety and excitement is the real focus of “Particle Fever.” The experiment itself is unbelievably exciting, no less because you can actually watch it — although only to a degree follow it. The filmmakers, and the scientists they’ve made their main stars, are excellent at breaking this down for the layperson. (The editing is by no less than Walter Murch, the peerlessly precise renaissance man who cut “Apocalypse Now,” did the dense sound design on “The Conversation” and also directed the underrated “Return to Oz.”)

The filmmaking captures the thrill of science as it’s happening. When science isn’t happening, its practitioners are humble, self-effacing. When grilled by an economist to ask what spending will reap, one of them happily admits, “I have no idea.” Science, to the frustration of plebeians — and scientists, for that matter — often functions through a fog of unpredictability. Radio waves, he points out, weren’t discovered because someone was looking for radio waves.

But just as captivating as the science itself is the act of simply watching the scientists. One of them describes the electricity of the event as “like a group of six year olds whose birthday is next week.” In fact, they get too worked up: They party before the first, failed run in 2008, complete with endearingly misjudged raps (with a Stephen Hawking sample interlude, natch). On the other hand, they have to be ready for the test to prove some of their theories right or wrong. The scientific method is built around accepting failure and admitting when your work has been disproven. Still, humbleness doesn’t come easy, even for them. One of our stars admits, forcefully, “I don’t believe in trying. I believe in getting it right.” Hey, we’re all human.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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