Movie review: Particle Fever (2014)

Particle Fever is an engaging documentary into the geeky lives of theoretical and experimental physicists. The movie covers five years from before the first attempt to emit a beam of light in the Large Hadron Collider until the presentation of data from repeated successful collisions, data that suggested the existence of the Higgs boson, dubbed “the God particle” in mainstream media.

The documentary follows only a few of the over ten thousand people involved in the life of the Large Hadron Collider. These intimate glimpses into the lives of the scientists on the project as well as snippets of interviews with them are interspersed with explanations about physics, the collider, and the Higgs boson by one of the physicists involved, David Kaplan.

The explanations are fascinating. I understand a lot more about why the collider was built, what they hoped to discover with it, and current (basic) views on the universe.

I learned that the collider at CERN was not the only such device being built. Another enormous collider was being built in the US, but it was cancelled due to the wisdom of the US Congress in 1993. Why? Because there was no foreseeable military or commercial application.

But, as Kaplan points out in a speech, investigation and research for the sake of knowledge do not always have immediately apparent military or commercial application, witness radio waves. Radio waves weren’t originally known as radio waves because the radio had yet to be invented. But clearly the investigation and research into what became known as radio waves had enormous military and economic impact. (And I would say a more modern example would be the Internet, originally developed by CERN to relay to scientists around the world the data that would be generated by the collider.)

Why are they building this collider? What good could come from it except possible future military and economic benefits that may not materialize? How can pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake be important? Savas Dimopoulos probably said it best, “The things {science and art} that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.”

The electron was discovered in 1897, the proton in 1919, the neutron in 1932. During the 1960s numerous particles were discovered. But then scientists realized that there weren’t really tons of different particles, just three bits called quarks. And the standard model of particles was born. All particles were accounted for, except the middle bit—the lynchpin of it all—the Higgs boson particle. It is what holds matter together.

Theoretical physicists had postulated numerous, well, theories. But they hadn’t been able to prove (or disprove) any of them. Kaplan mentions two countervailing views of the universe: supersymmetry and multiverse. Although I cannot remotely do justice to these theories, they are the ideas of symmetry between two types of particles (fermions and bosons) and the idea of multiple universes, which wouldn’t possess symmetry.

If the Higgs boson does not appear from the data of the collisions, then decades of theories about the nature of the universe are wrong. If the Higgs boson turns out to be 115GeV, this would prove the supersymmetry theory. If it turns out to be 140GeV, this would prove the multiverse theory.

The Large Hadron Collider could possibly prove the existence of the Higgs boson and based on data gathered, prove or disprove either theory.

The data returned from collisions in the machine was announced in July of 2012. The data did indeed suggest the existence of Higgs boson. It showed 125GeV. Neither theory was proven. In fact, without new particles, at 125GeV, the Higgs boson is unstable, a temporary “lynchpin” of everything in life, which means that if it goes, everything goes. A sobering thought that makes the fragile nature of life more immediate.

This was disappointing and exhilarating. More to theorize. More to experiment on. As one of the scientist—Savas Dimopoulos—related, “Jumping from failure to failure without undiminished enthusiasm is the big secret to success.”

In July 2012, after the announcement of the data retrieved from experiments with the collider, the collider was to be shut down for two years to undergo upgrades. In fact, the shutdown didn’t actually start until February 2013, which means we must wait for more experiments until 2015.

In the meantime, in 2013, François Englert and Peter W. Higgs finally received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Theorists have likely been busy with new theories or reworking older ones. Experimental physicists have likely been busy preparing to test out these theories. And I am eagerly awaiting the results…as well as a sequel to this documentary.

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