Release: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 (limited)
Time to bust out those nerdy glasses, kids, because today we’re going back to school to talk a lot about the Large Hadron Collider, henceforth referred to as the LHC! (YAY!) Some of you may be looking for a quick exit already. That’s okay, I’m pretty sure there’s a support group for people who don’t mind living in ignorance, right down the hall. Should be on your left, you can’t miss it.
For everyone else with an open mind, let’s jump right into a quick analysis of this highly intriguing documentary, Particle Fever.
Everyone recalls the construction (or at least the completion thereof) of the world’s largest particle accelerator, located near Geneva, Switzerland. Harbored deep within a subterranean, concrete-reinforced tunnel at the Franco-Swiss border, the LHC today looms among the world’s largest and most complex machines ever built by human hands. One lap around this puppy is a 17-mile jog. ‘Ambitious’ is a term that doesn’t even begin to describe the size of both the device itself and the project requiring its use. Design, construction and operation of the LHC involved the decade-long (1998-2008) efforts of approximately 10,000 scientists and engineers, and due to it’s immense implications, far more eyes than those of the scientific community were turning towards this little corner of the globe.
When it comes to explaining just what the LHC is supposed to do, it might be easier to start explaining exactly what the thing isn’t supposed to do. Understandably, with an event of this magnitude, great speculation surrounded the whole enterprise. . .almost to the point where the LHC became a mythological construct. The ultimate plaything.
At the time of the machine’s first day of operation — in the scientific world, September 10, 2008 was known as the day of ‘First Beam’ — newspaper headlines the world over announced that we were officially one step closer to better understanding conditions present at the time of the supposed ‘Big Bang,’ a singular event that is thought to have spawned everything that has ever been. While the sensational claim isn’t entirely false, it is misleading, if only because general interest news articles tend not to delve particularly deep into the details of the genius of this machine and of the people who designed it.
Avoiding going into excessive detail is a tactic that Mark Levinson uses to great effect in his behind-the-scenes peek at some of the individuals involved in this massive project. Levinson likes to keep things simple, and though the documentary’s subject matter is anything but, he succeeds in creating a film that doesn’t require a deep understanding of particle physics for viewers to keep up with the discussion. Rather, interviews with a variety of scientists from all over the world offer up a kind of collage of dialogue that viewers can sift through and try to identify from their own point of view. None of these scientists condescend, nor do they ever break from stereotype, either. Sure, a dance party themed out as a tribute to the collider is a bit dorky, but what else should we have expected here?
Particle Fever catalogs major events on a timeline that’s in its infancy. Beginning with the days leading up to the aforementioned ‘First Beam,’ a day where only a single particle was sent through the circuit as a way to test the very most basic functional aspects, the film moves on to cover many triumphs and setbacks, including the infamous breakdown that occurred a mere week-and-a-half after the first test — a day that gave the world media and the skeptics additional fuel in their arguments against the LHC’s being a tool for the betterment of mankind. When the LHC proved almost too powerful for its own good on that fateful day, those doubting whether science was really trying to push knowledge forward (as opposed to trying to kill everyone on earth by accidentally creating a black hole in the middle of the planet — remember that little laugh?) came flooding out of the woodwork. It was, for all intents and purposes, a day of science fiction for the brainiacs gathered in Geneva.
However, despite setbacks, the conversation constantly shifts to excitedly discussing more and increasingly greater successes. What really lies at the heart of this experiment, as you may or may not recall, is a little theoretical particle called the Higgs boson. So, if the truth is to be told to the public eventually, the question becomes “what are we missing from the big picture?” rather than merely “what is the big picture?” Fortunately, and thanks to the brilliant design of the LHC, the particle is no longer theoretical. The Higgs particle is viewed as the long-missing piece of a puzzle that the mainstream media were quick to label the ‘God particle,’ based on the almost miraculous nature of its discovery. Of course, scientists pooh-pooh the term, as its a little too sensational.
In July of 2012 a convention was held to officially announce that the Higgs particle indeed existed, thanks to the efforts of one seriously expensive piece of equipment. By way of this groundbreaking presentation, the global scientific community were also honoring and congratulating the two men who were credited for the Higgs’ initial discovery, Dr. Peter Higgs and Belgian physicist François Englert. The pair’s efforts would receive their ultimate affirmation with their sharing of the 2013 Nobel Prize.
The documentary is a strong testimony to the power of the human mind, as it almost exclusively revolves around the lives of a few scientists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (otherwise known as CERN) who dedicate themselves entirely to ensure the LHC not only works but helps provide new answers to age-old questions. The gamble is an absolutely crazy one, since the possibility of the LHC revealing no new information would be largely viewed as a catastrophic step backward for science. I would reveal more myself, but what’s left unaddressed here will only be more powerful when it’s revealed for you on the big screen. I guess what I am saying is. . .class dismissed boys and girls!
Recommendation: Insightful, Particle Fever may seem a pretty niched topic for a film but it holds information of a very general appeal. The discussion ongoing is very profound and important to consider at least on some level for everyone at some point. Hard to imagine most viewers walking around everyday with all of this information constantly crowding their thoughts, but if that’s the case, then this film should be even more fascinating.
Running Time: 99 mins.
Quoted: “This could be nothing, other than understanding everything. . .”
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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.pbs.org