Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Mark Levinson.
It’s not often you get to see a bunch of stuffy scientists toasting each other with champagne or enthusiastically giving each other high fives like a bunch of giddy school kids. But that’s about what you can expect in this documentary about one of the most important scientific discoveries of the modern era, probably the most important scientific endeavour since man landed on the moon.
This documentary looks at the massive Large Hadron Collider, the largest and most expensive experiment ever conceived, which brought together over 10,000 scientists from 100 different countries all united in the search for one goal. Constructed on the site of CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland, the collider basically consisted of a 17 mile diameter ring, which ran underneath three countries.
The purpose of this elaborate piece of complex engineering was to try and find the Higgs Boson, the elusive so-called “god particle” that holds the key to understanding the nature of matter and even the origins of the universe. The scientists basically ran atomic particles through the ring at the speed of light and then allowed them to smash into one another, and recording the result. The scientists hoped to recreate what happened moments after the Big Bang supposedly created the universe.
This was a grand scientific experiment some 20 years in the making. Apparently US scientists began work on a similar project in Texas in 1992, but it was killed off by Congress, who deemed it too expensive and having no practical military applications. According to the film, the world wide web was developed twenty years ago as part of this massive scientific undertaking so that scientists from around the world could share the information.
The director is Mark Levinson, a former physicist turned filmmaker who has largely worked in the sound department of a number of films, and he obviously knows this territory. The producer is David Kaplan, a professor of particle physics at Johns Hopkins University. This mix of theoretical physics and mathematics makes for a pretty dry subject matter, but Levinson tries to make all the technical jargon and scientific concepts user friendly and comprehensible for the lay audience. He even brings an element of suspense and tension to the material as the countdown to the experiment approaches. He even incorporates some wonderful animation sequences to help illustrate what is happening.
Levinson mainly concentrates on six scientists as they hypothesise and speculate, and they all seem personable enough. We are introduced to Fabiola Gianottti and Savas Dimopoulos, for whom this is the cumulation of a lifetime of work and research; Monica Dunford, Martin Aleksa, the outspoken Nima Arkani-Hamed, and Mike Lamont, whose job it is to ensure that everything in this massive project works. Their enthusiasm for the project is contagious. Their efforts were rewarded with a Nobel Prize.
Particle Fever was shot over the course of seven years, and follows the project from the initial concept of constructing the collider through to the successful experiment itself. There was a wealth of material shot over the course of the experiment, and it has been carefully shaped by Oscar winning editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, etc), who sifted through some 300 hours of footage.
Particle Fever is an intelligent and reasonably accessible documentary about one of the most important scientific experiments ever undertaken. As one scientist remarks: “The things that are the least important for our survival, are the very things that make us human.” But as with many documentaries, it seems to have been padded out unnecessarily, and some of the material seems a little repetitive, whereas with a bit of careful trimming it could have made for a much tighter and informative fifty minute documentary.