In the documentary Particle Fever, Stanford's Savas Dimopoulos muses, "Why do humans do science? Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human." One of six particle physicists ready for their close up in Particle Fever, Dimopoulos sums up the basic instincts behind this work of film art that records a pivotal moment in scientific advancement.
Physicist turned filmmaker Mark Levinson gets (and thrillingly shares) VIP access to that moment, as those physicists rev up CERN's Large Hadron Collider to reproduce the conditions just after the Big Bang. Or as David Kaplan of Johns Hopkins University (also a producer on the film) half-jokes, that's what they're telling people. The real reason for the experiments is "trying to understand the basic laws of nature," a goal with no military or commercial application but epochal implications for human knowledge.
Levinson has chosen articulate spokespeople in Dimopoulos, Kaplan, Harvard's Nima Arkani-Hamed, Italy's Fabiola Gianotti, CERN's Martin Aleksa, "Beam Operation Leader" Mike Lamont, and post-doc Monica Dunford. Covering the period between 2007 and 2012, Levinson's film derives from over five hundred hours of footage assembled by legendary editor Walter Murch (The Conversation, The English Patient), a three-time Oscar winner, as it observes CERN's search for the Higgs particle, the center of the standard model of elementary particles.
The spectacularly epic machinery itself makes for a great visual—especially true of the five-story open ATLAS Detector used to collect massive amounts of data (Joss Whedon seemed to be visually alluding to it in the opening scenes of The Avengers)—and the film occasionally spins off into animated montage to illustrate a point. But the drama is on a human scale: the film efficiently reminds us of how CERN had to play politics, dispel hysterical fears, and weather a media frenzy to arrive at its results under intense public scrutiny. On the brighter side, this is a tremendous international success story, made possible by transcending borders and partisanship.
In a way, that's also true of the two types of particle physicists—experimentalists and theorists—given thrilling reason to work side by side, though any underlying tension mostly lies between two competing theories: super symmetry versus the multiverse. Should a winner be declared, the "losing" theorists risk having "wasted" decades intellectually pursuing wild geese down blind alleys.
If the film disappoints, it only does so by not being yet more rigorous in its scientific detail. With six scientists to get to know a little, so much to explain, and suspense to build, Particle Fever inevitably feels as if it's just skimming the surface of a fascinating subject. Still, even a science dunce will walk away with a basic understanding of the project and a strong impression of the community around this important research. Better yet, here is a film about the idealistic pursuit of knowledge: something we should all be able to agree upon admiring.