PARTICLE FEVER. Starring David Kaplan, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Martin Alexa, Monica Dunford, Fabiola Gianotti. Directed by Mark Levinson. 99 minutes. Rated M (Infrequent coarse language).
Who would have expected any fever about particles? The answer is: thousands of physicists around the world – and many non-physicists. This is a documentary for the latter audience rather than specialist physicists, though they may enjoy seeing the visuals of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), CERN, Switzerland. (They may well be critical of the explanations given – and be appropriately challenged by how they would write a screenplay for ordinary lay viewers and to communicate with them.)
Many of us will remember talk of the LHC in 2008 and the experiments to see whether material could be sent spinning around the 17 km of tunnels under parts of Switzerland and France where, when the time was right, particles would collide with each other and reveal, or not reveal, a key particle in an atom which keeps the other particles together. Well, perhaps not every audience will remember those events. It is more likely that they will remember July 2012 when, after several years, ensuring that there were no mishaps in the functioning of the Collider, the experiment was set in motion.
Out of the media hype was the hope of expectation that the scientists would find the “God-particle”. It would give insights into what happened at the Big Bang and immediately afterwards. Named after the British physicist, Peter Higgs, there was already a title for this particle: the Higgs boson Particle.
The documentary doesn’t immediately plunge us into the physics. Rather, some genial hosts provide a great deal of Talking Heads information, especially David Kaplan who introduces us to the whole experience. There is documentary material of his visiting CERN in earlier years, inviting us into show us the whole plant, revealing the extraordinary amount of engineering that went into setting up this vast Collider. One realises that the audience should be in absolute awe of the designers, the engineers, the technicians, the maintenance personnel who kept this world’s largest machine, several stories high, in working order.
We are taken back to 2008, the excitement and the wondering whether the particles would be able to circulate freely in the 17 km tunnel. When there is success, the fever rides high. One of the things that older audiences will notice is that how young the majority of the physicists are. There are some grey hair and grey beard types, including Peter Higgs himself who was present in 2012, receives a rapturous elevation and can be seen to be very emotionally moved.
David Kaplan has quite a number of friends and contacts in Switzerland so he interviews many of them. And, before they succumb to any particle fever, they are highly enthusiastic, committed to the physics, especially to the theories and the variety of theories which will be proven or disproven by the 2012 experiment. They are strong on theory, relying on mathematics – and for anyone in the audience (most of us) who get gobsmacked by seeing blackboards full of mathematical formulae, using symbols that they have no idea about, one blogger advises, ‘don’t be scared, just as in a horror movie with something monstrous, turn away!’.
The excitement is high in 2012, not only in Switzerland, but in various places around the world which are connected, enabling physicists and the public to witness the events as they happen.
For those who are thinking of seeing the film, it is probably no good asking your friends about it. They will start to stumble in any explanation which could throw light on the physics or the maths. Rather, be inspired by their enthusiasm, and the fever that they have picked up from watching scientists, many of whom live in a world of theories, as well as the people on the ground, so to speak, who rely on the science and the engineering, and so decide to see the film. There is no exam afterwards.
However, while most of us will not retain much of the detail at all, we have been let into the world of physics, of theories, of speculating about the God-particle, about the Big Bang and its energy, about evolution, about the Higgs boson Particle - and the possibility of its collapsing in on itself which could mean the collapse of the universe. Physicists, of course, are hoping against hope that this will not happen.
A most impressive cinema documentary experience.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 27th 2014.