To call director's Mark Levinson's stunning multi-layered documentary "Particle Fever" simply the story of the launch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is like describing Michelangelo's David as an artistic marble statue of a well-built guy.
"Particle Fever" is a nuanced, thrilling tale of thousands of scientists from hundreds of countries toiling for decades to build a super machine - so powerful that if successful, could unravel the secrets of our universe. Or not.
At stake lies a tantalizing, hotly debated issue: Is the universe one of "Super Symmetry" where everything is well-ordered with natural albeit not-yet-knowable laws; or is our universe but one of millions, formed out of, and run by, chaos and inherently unstable? One way to discover the answer was to prove the existence and weight of the Higgs boson, sub-atomic particle about which scientists had long theorized. By smashing two protons together at incredible speeds, the LHC hopefully could do that.
The film follows six lead physicists - three experimental and three theoretical - as they head toward the launch. Particle physics are explained with dazzling yet thoroughly accessible graphics. You don't have to be a scientific geek to understand and appreciate how cool this stuff is. And that's just one of the fascinating lessons to be learned from this engrossing and entertaining film.
The LHC, built by CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) from 1998 to 2008, is one place where dire enemies such as Iran and Israel, India and Pakistan, Georgia and Russia all collaborate with each other. Together they succeeded in building the world's largest, most expensive, highest-energy machine -- a feat of cooperation from which the world's political leaders could learn a thing or two.
It's a funny and dramatic story about what makes a bunch of incredibly smart and dedicated people spend their entire careers grappling to find answers to the universe's most basic conundrums without knowing if they will ever succeed. We learn what motivated them to enter the forbidding field of physics. For CERN experimental physicist Fabiola Gianotti, it was music, whose patterns and rules turned out to be a lot like physics. For theoretical physicist Savas Dimopoulos of Stanford University, it was a desire to find order in a seemingly chaotic world. But really, a pure passion and deep intellectual curiosity is what makes these men and women tick and both traits are much in evidence throughout the film, pulling you in to cheer them on.
An economist at a press conference asked David Kaplan, theoretical physicist at Stanford University, what economic gain the collider could have. "I have no idea," he replied.
And that's the point. At a time when basic science budgets are squeezed to the max if not obliterated, the LHC success speaks to the need to return to and fund the bygone days of places like Bell Labs where scientists could simply play in a scientific sandbox, following their creative whims with little thought of what money their endeavors might bring in. Such freedom fueled many a scientific breakthrough.
Superlative editing by long-time editor Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now," "The Godfather Parts II & III," "The English Patient") brings into stark relief the irony and beauty between the infinite mysteries of the universe and the mundane demands of our nanosecond existence.
From protons colliding to shots of cave paintings and Bach sonatas, "Particle Fever" reminds us that both art and science seek to explain the universe. Notes Dimopoulos, "Why do people do science? Why do they do art? The things that are the least important for our survival are the very things that make us human."
Run, don't walk, to the nearest showing of "Particle Fever." And be sure to bring the kids, especially those pesky ones who always question everything.