Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Flawed Theory: Particle Fever

The CERN Large Hadron Collider, in Mark Levinson's documentary Particle Fever

The challenge of Particle Fever is to distil a hugely complex subject into something we can grasp and appreciate: the hunt for the elusive Higgs boson particle, and through it a deeper understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe. It rises to the challenge, presenting a deeply momentous scientific undertaking with passionate clarity. But I’m not sure it will convert those who are not already scientifically-inclined. For those of us who retain the thirst for knowledge we cultivated as children, however, it’s an exciting ride. The film focuses on the theoretical and experimental physicists who gather at Europe’s CERN from all corners of the globe in 2008, before the switch was first flipped on the Large Hadron Collider – a singular moment in the history of science, where literally everything we thought we knew about the universe and how it worked was up in the air. These scientists were buzzing with excitement at the prospect of gathering some truly unprecedented data, using the largest and most complex tool ever designed by human hands. As one physicist remarks, it’s “history happening right before our eyes.”

The idea has a dizzying import, and the physicists who are interviewed demonstrate no small amount of passion (and anxiety) about their work. Some, like Princeton’s Nima Arkadi-Hamed, are troubled by doubts that the LHC might show our understanding of physics to be utterly flawed (conforming to a “multiverse” theory, which if proven correct would halt the progress of all physics). Others like Savas Dimopolous of Stanford are more hopeful, believing (or, perhaps, wanting to believe) that the data will reveal a massively broad spectrum of new insight (what’s called the “supersymmetry” model). The drama in Particle Fever coalesces from this central struggle between “Will we be proven right?” or “Will we be proven terribly, terribly wrong?.” Unfortunately, this drama can sometimes feel manufactured and unconvincing. A sense of spectacle is probably appropriate, considering the lofty subject matter, but some technical issues (choppy audio dubbing, painfully obvious restructuring of events through editing, etc) broke the immersion for me. The visual component are also somewhat lacking – the necessary bar graphs, infographics, and charts are helpful in breaking down some important concepts, such as the difference between the multiverse theory and the supersymmetry model. But some of the CG effects in these sequences look oddly bad, almost dated, and one wonders whether it wouldn’t have been simpler to do away with them altogether. These explanatory segments are few and far between, however, leaving plenty of room to watch these scientists squirm with anticipation once the big machine is finally turned on for the first time.

My only other major gripe is with the ending, which doesn’t provide nearly as conclusive an answer as I’d hoped. The bulk of Particle Fever is lead-up – what will happen when the LHC comes online? – and the result is…well, inconclusive. It reminds me of Titanic, in a way – we already know the ending, but it strings us along in the futile, suspended-disbelief hope that it might somehow play out differently. The Higgs particle was confirmed to exist, but the battle between the multiverse and supersymmetry theories is far from over, and what we learned from the experience isn’t clear even to this day. The disappointment I felt at such an anticlimactic conclusion can’t be laid at the feet of the filmmakers – one can’t exactly complain about Titanic lacking a happy ending, either – but it leaves a dull impression nonetheless.

These are minor complaints, however, and as a whole Particle Fever impresses with its animated interviews and solid pacing, and it deserves credit for bringing such an important story in the history of modern science to a level that anyone can appreciate. Even if you’re not at all interested in physics, this is a documentary that will have you asking questions about the way our universe works. I’m sure that is exactly the point.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto. 

1 comment:

  1. It's not germane to your topic, but as an interesting subplot, the USA lost it's opportunity to lead the world in this research when it cut funding to the Tevetron project in 1993. Now, US scientists play a role, but only as contributors and collaborators.