Particle Fever (2013) – Follow the largest human endeavor

The things that seem like the least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.‘ – Savas Dimopoulos.

Directed by Mark Levinson Produced by Mark Levinson David Kaplan Narrated by David Kaplan

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is one of the biggest scientific endeavors that we humans have ever embarked on. We have launched manned missions to moon, built hi-tech machines, connected the entire world, and sent a probe into deep space. It is in the same spirit that we have built the LHC, an engineering marvel, to understand the fundamental building blocks of nature.  It is inherent to our human nature that we seek out to understand the unknown. Particle Fever follows the journey to the discovery of the Higgs boson by shadowing 6 physicists from the start of the LHC to the discovery of the particle.

I should begin this review with a disclaimer: I am a particle physics myself. I recommend this movie with all my heart not just because I want to share with you all why my area of research is so awesome, but also because this is an excellent movie celebrating the human spirit and the scientific endeavor.

The documentary follows 3 theorists and 3 experimentalists. David Kaplan who is the brain behind the movie narrates the movie for us, and Monica Dunford (then a post-doc at CERN) turns to be the rockstar of the movie for the enthusiasm she exhibits throughout the movie. Savas Dimopoulos and Nima Arkani-Hamed are the two theorists that explain the popular theory that the LHC is hunting for. Fabiola Gianotti and Martin Aleska guide us through the experimental journey of the ATLAS collaboration though the LHC start, the accident and finally to Fabiola announcing the Higgs discovery on July 3, 2012. The cast has been well utilized to portray a wide spectrum of physicists, and by telling each one’s personal stories, the makers of the movie add a personal touch to these scientists. 


The theorists (above) and the experimentalists (below).

The theorists (above) and the experimentalists (below).

A problem that scientists struggle with is the perception that they are weird people and lack social skills. While many academics do not obey social interactions like most business, corporate, or people otherwise, they are passionate and funny people and come in all types, races, and gender. Kudos to the crew for reinstating this and preserving the true flavor of the above scientists. 

As the LHC progresses along, the physicists also explain what we expect to see at this machine and why it is important to pursue this ambition. In the beginning, Kaplan gets asked about the economic return of this endeavor. (I often get asked about this too and I do not think you can put price tag on human curiosity.) Of course, Kaplan answers it with much more style – ‘It could be nothing – except for understanding everything.’  And best yet, is the answer given by Wilson (of Fermilab) to a Congressional committee: ‘It has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.

The movie showcases most of the trials and triumphs the community went though in the last few years and I was lucky enough to be a part of this community through this wonderful time. I left the movie with nostalgia. You will too and I hope you will also be inspired to learn about the mysteries of the universe. The movie ends of a high note with the discovery of the Higgs but sadly, the same cannot be said of the funding situation for students, post docs, and faculty in the field. In spite of the significance of the field, it remains a challenge for scientists to sustain in the field. Yet, the show must go on, for in the process of producing scientists you create great teachers, sharp quants, and savvy data scientists and software developers and more over educated citizens.

One of the unforgettable memories I have had is a trip to CERN and a lucky trip to the CMS (the other) experiment of the LHC.



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