Film Review: Particle Fever

By Rebecca Dell

Part of the Large Hadron Collider.  Photo courtesy of Anthos Media

Part of the Large Hadron Collider. Photo courtesy of Anthos Media

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Could the universe really be a multiverse? Does dark matter exist? The documentary Particle Fever follows physicists seeking answers to these questions and others.

The film, which True/False Film Fest co-conspirator Paul Sturtz called “the most engaging science film I’ve ever seen,” showed at the Missouri Theatre as part of the True/False Film Fest’s day of student programming, T.G.I.T/F, on Feb. 28, 2014. Mark Levinson, the film’s director, and producer David Kaplan, one of the physicists in the film, showed up for a Q&A session.

The film tracks the efforts centered at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as physicists work to find the Higgs boson. The narrative pulls viewers into the drama of a breakthrough discovery as physicists prepare to turn on a massive machine called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. Before turning it on for the first time, physicist Monica Dunford says, the team is like a group of 6-year-olds excited about their birthdays. Dunford, in awe, likens the LHC section she works on to a five-story Swiss watch. But before physicists turn the LHC on, they don’t know what they will find. Will it show that the Higgs exists? Will theories be bolstered or rebuffed?

One theme of the film is the collaboration between theoretical physicists, who come up with ideas, and experimental physicists, who try them out. Other themes include the hard work of discovery; the supposed beauty of math and science; the fear of the unknown; teamwork and persistence. Graphics and animations help explain what the LHC  does and ideas like the multiverse hypothesis and supersymmetry. Ultimately, the physicists return to the basic impetus of science: constant exploration and pushing frontiers, even when you might find out that everything you thought was right was actually upside down.

Physicist David Kaplan, left, and director Mark Levinson answer questions after the film as True/False festival co-director Paul Sturtz moderates.

Physicist David Kaplan, left, and director Mark Levinson answer questions after the film as True/False Film Fest co-conspirator Paul Sturtz moderates. Photo by Rebecca Dell.

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