Beyond the global difference within physics over how its practitioners approach their field, the LHC experiment also rests on a disagreement. In the search for the Higgs Boson, the particle that gives matter mass (I think), the key will be the particle’s weight. Some expect the result to conform to the Standard Model of Physics, on which the field has rested for decades, while others expect the result to nullify or radically alter the Standard Model. Whatever the result is, it will either provide grounds for further study and the search for more particles, or it will provide strong evidence for or against predictions about the universe, like the possibility of the multiverse or the role that randomness plays. Levinson’s subjects do an excellent job conveying what the stakes mean for their vocation and for science as a whole.
At the big climactic moment, the viewer has a strong sense of all that has gone into this moment. We’ve seen the scale of the construction, how everything around the 17-mile track has to be just so. There are so many workers and scientists in control rooms, laboring away at a process without a clear ending. When it’s finally time to fire, after years of work and costly delays, it feels like a dramatic moment for the species. Countries that are mortal enemies have sent staff here. The Nobel laureate Peter Higgs, who named the Higgs Boson when he theorized on it, is in attendance when the LHC finally fires its protons around its track, potentially confirming or refuting its existence. Seeing the culmination of his life’s work, and the life’s work of so many in attendance, is an awe-inspiring scene that revels in the exaltation of the moment, even if it’s not exactly clear what’s happening.
Particle Fever is emblematic of what documentaries are for. It slightly demystifies an opaque process while connecting the viewer to the people who have given their lives to it. It realizes that no matter how arcane something is, there is some group that cares deeply about it, and their passion makes the thing valuable. In the case of Particle Fever and the LHC experiments, the value might still be unknown, but the pursuit is shown to be worth it, and more. It’s tossed off early in the film that the LHC was going to be in Texas until the funding dried up. The US might be doomed thanks to short-term thinking like that, but there’s still hope for humanity. A-