Thursday, July 24, 2014

Movie Review: Particle Fever

Particle Fever
Directed by: Mark Levinson.

The CERN Super Collider in Switzerland is one of the most complicated machines ever built by man. They started construction in 1985, and it wasn’t ready to conduct any sort of experiments until 2010. At one point, America was going to build their own super collider in Texas – but Congress killed the project because they didn’t see any money in it. They were right about that. The information gathered from the CERN Super Collider and its experiments have no commercial applications. Instead the only purpose it has is to try and discover the mysteries of the Universe – how things came into being. So, you know, nothing important.

Watching Particle Fever is a fascinating experience in so many ways. I couldn’t help but feel anxious for the theoretical physicists in the film. They have spent the entirety of their adult lives – decades in some cases – coming up with theories about the building blocks of universe, and how they all fit together. When the results of the experiments from the CERN super collider become known, the odds are that some of the theories they have worked for decades on will be proven completely and totally wrong. They are all geniuses – but even geniuses can be wrong. The film builds suspense by explaining the different theories – basically Super symmetry and Multiverse – in terms that are fairly easy to understand (and if I, you never took a physics course in my life can get it, I think everyone else could as well). Basically it all boils down to the weight of the so-called Higgs particle – something that had only been theoretical until the Super Collider came online. If it weighs more than 140, it would be more in line with the Multiverse theory – if it’s closer to 115, then it would prove super symmetry. The suspense comes not only from the difference between these two theories, which there is a “friendly rivalry” about among theoretical physicists – but also because if the Multiverse proves to be correct, it could be the end of theoretical physics as we know it. There will be no further to go.

This probably sounds like a dry, academic documentary – the type of film that you’re forced to sit through in a high school physics class. To a certain extent, that’s true – I cannot imagine that high school teachers will not be showing this film in their classes for years to come. But it’s also an entertaining film – it lets you get to know some of the personalities of the people behind the theories, and the people who are actually building the machines. For fans of The Big Bang Theory, it’s a more serious version of the conflict between Leonard and Sheldon – and it’s amusing at times.

The film is also quietly profound. Congress was right when they said that the project would never make them any money. But it’s still one of the most important projects in human history. We should want to know how the earth came to be, and all the mysteries about our universe. This costs money – billions of dollars in fact – but there are some things more important than money. Even if the CERN super collider is, in economic terms, just a money suck, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It may make it even more so. Particle Fever is a movie for science nerds – there’s no doubt about that – but it’s also for anyone who is interested in the origins of our universe. That really should include everyone,

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