Particle Fever: a must-see hit

Two weeks ago, the Physics Department hosted a viewing of the critically acclaimed documentary, Particle Fever. This viewing was followed by a lively discussion with the director and producer, Mark Levinson (UC Berkeley Ph.D. ’83), as well as Walter Murch and a panel of UC Berkeley physicists. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the viewing; however, I did watch the film and herein submit my humble review (spoiler alert: it’s excellent).

Released this March, Particle Fever documents the long-awaited discovery of the Higgs boson and has drawn much critical acclaim. Co-produced by physicist David Kaplan (also a UC Berkeley graduate, A.B. ’99), the documentary explores the search for the Higgs boson through the eyes of several key players, including Fabiola Gianotti, Lyn Evans, Savas Dimopoulos, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Monica Dunford, and Martin Aleksa.

The film opens with incredible visuals of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and a provoking voice-over by David Kaplan. We’re told that the LHC is the largest instrument ever built by man, and the footage certainly captures the enormity of this project, setting the tone for the rest of the documentary. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the collaborative engineering feat or swept up by the excitement of the scientists as they bustle about inside this mega-machine. Only after we’re walked through the tremendous history of the LHC and the meaning of this project to the physics community is the question finally posed, why are we doing this?

“We study particles because just after the Big Bang all there was was particles, and they carried the information about how our universe started and how it got to be the way it is and its future.”David E. Kaplan, Particle Fever

Here’s where I think the documentary makes one of its many brilliant moves. Kaplan breaks his answer down into two parts, the funding pitch (to simulate the physics just after the Big Bang) and the fundamental motivation behind this research (to better understand the basic laws of nature). In doing so, he not only contextualizes the importance of this problem to the layman, but sets down the groundwork for what I see to be the thesis of this film; what is the foundation of our universe?

Two over-arching themes underlie this thesis. First, the need for basic science research, which I think is justified beautifully. Second, an exploration of why we, as individuals, should care about basic science. By capturing the poignant excitement, struggles, and frustrations of the researchers intimately associated with this project, the documenters humanize these scientists and in their efforts to find the Higgs boson; the viewer is taken on a journey to learn the significance not only of this one discovery, but of the quest of scientists everywhere to understand the architecture of all that is contained in our universe. In more ways than one, Particle Fever stands as a philosophical manifesto for scientists.

“So what is the LHC good for? Could be nothing other than just understanding everything.”David E. Kaplan, Particle Fever

By walking the audience step-by-step through the triumphs and setbacks of the project, the film provided a realistic expose of science as a research process. This perspective was nuanced, highlighting the relationship between theorists and experimentalists as well as the tension often present between the scientific community and the media and it’s depictions of the “God particle”. The documentary spends large portions of time discussing the theory and ideas surrounding the fundamental particle, stitching together the major news-worthy moments of the endeavor with conversations about the significance of the Higgs boson to our understanding of the universe and the fate of the field of particle physics. Personally, as an experimentalist, I would have appreciated further discussion of the technical challenges the LHC faced and subsequent solutions; however, I also recognize that this was not the focus of the feature.

All-in-all, Particle Fever was a riveting look at one of the most influential discoveries in modern physics. Well-paced and filled with empathetic characters who drove the story, this documentary was both powerful and salient. Five out of five stars rating.

What were your thoughts on the film? Did you attend the Physics Department showing? Let us know in the comments below!

Particle Fever can be viewed on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or the documentary’s website. For more information about the Higgs boson and its discovery, check out the BSR feature article, “Hunting Down the Higgs” by Christopher Smallwood.


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