One of the largest mysteries of our known universe had until 2012 remained undiscovered among the smallest particles that combine to make matter. The Higgs Boson, called “The God Particle” by the media for popularization, was finally confirmed from the findings of the world’s largest man-made machine ever built, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Five stories tall, seventeen miles in circumference, and cooled to temperatures below those of deep space to replicate the conditions moments after the Big Bang, the collider’s successful records of data are one of the greatest achievements of humankind. Like a relentless hunter who has finally ensnared his prey, the scientist to present the lab’s findings in 2012 capped his remarks about the search for the elusive boson succinctly: “We’ve got it.”
That’s the gravity “The Particle Fever” aims to impart on us, a documentary that favors a remarkably modest tone to grandiosity. For those intimately tied to the project, that’s probably the most appropriate attitude to have if only because as one theorist notes, the whole endeavor could have been for naught. That the Higgs was ultimately identified is not only a testament to the wonders of the LHC itself, but for the droves of theorists and experimentalists—playfully distinguished early on like cliques in a summer camp—who conceptualized the project. This undertaking must have from the onset been framed by the same scientific method we all learned in seventh grade. But the solitary shots of the LHC, some of the most tantalizing parts of the film, prove that complexity was the only villain here. Everything must have worked perfectly to work at all. As a project director tells his staff on the first day sending a particle through the loop, “Even the controls that you are sure will do nothing, don’t touch them. Especially those, don’t touch them.”
And so the film follows CERN directors and a post-doc student in the trenches, as well as academic skeptically watching from afar waiting for validation of their lives’ work, or discredit. The hallmark of the feature is the “Fever” part of the title—the raw excitement at what the LHC could reveal is what has truly driven them, evident in their voices, gestures, and eye-popping expressions. At no point do you need to be a science wonk to appreciate watching the giddiness of the rooms full of energetic scientists typing, scribbling on whiteboards and tablet computers, and video blogging their experiences. These are lives of purpose. Indeed, one scientist says the primary motivation for him and his colleagues is to understand the nature of the universe; for naturalists, the Higgs was worthy of dedicating a life to.
It may be hard to conceptualize but not difficult to understand why, and in reductive style we are taught the cocktail-party version of the science. The illustrations and bite-sized chunks are adequate to make it through the film, and more than enough for viewers entering the theater with no background of the Higgs, CERN, or the LHC altogether. But I suspect most of us who venture out to this picture will have at least a scant if not conversant knowledge of what these individuals were trying to achieve. In several scenes we listen to voiceover while the speakers furiously write out equations in mathematical chicken-scratch. Some help understanding these fringe elements would have made this a more complete documentary. After all, whatever ideas had sprung from these writings are what initially formed the basis for the LHC, and in them laid the strongest guarantee that anything would be found.
The same is true for each time we witness the gloriously intricate LHC. The circular cross sections help us picture the tunnel the particles travel in, but after hinting that the contraption revs these particles up to close to the speed of light, plenty of viewers would be thirsty to know how. This is to say, at the same time “Particle Fever” relishes and celebrates the inquisitiveness of its scientists, its goal of making an accessible film forces us to temper our own inquisitiveness, preventing the film from revealing some of the most beautiful aspects of the journey. At several times, a scientist will liken the varieties of models of the universe to artistry. Just as Michelangelo sought to replicate the male figure with David, the people here seek to replicate he universe—but they cannot first see the whole picture. The audience would too have benefited from a peak into what they do see.
But that may not be what Mark Levinson is after. “Particle Fever” is ultimately a series of individual portraits of human beings gradually, steadily, but with fervor, progressing towards a monumental discovery. Collaboration is an inspiring theme here; we are told persons from over 100 countries, some of them historied enemies, have come to CERN to participate. An ending shot of Peter Higgs himself, who dreamt up the idea of the extra boson in the 1930s, displays his remarks on the day the boson was presented: “Congratulations to the teams of people who have made this discovery. I’m just glad I could have witnessed it in my lifetime.”
“Not just your lifetime,” says his interviewer.