Dir. Mark Levinson. USA. 2014.

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When the furore about The Higgs Particle was at its highest, this bit of big news turned everyone into a layman scientist: people were talking all over about the discovery of the start of everything: the origin of matter, life after the big bang etc..Particle Fever is the film behind that journey, from the creation of the machine to harness the particle to the discovery of the particle itself.

Watching this really great, entertaining and informative documentary is a lot better if you are into science. It has more than a rudimentary style in explanation and will appeal mostly to those with a massive capacity for inquiry and a love of dedicated geekdom on screen. The nearest this has in documentary first cousin is Fermat’s Last Theorem which gave us a gang of Mathematicians (from Ancient Greeks to 20th Century) postulating over a line of inquiry posed centuries ago. That was a very rich piece of work which had at its heart a message not to give up. Geeks with the bit between their teeth always make a good watch – they more than compensate for the endless capacity for humans to be content with just earning a living, go to work and wait for Friday night.  Here is no exception as some of the guys and girls who have invested their lives in the pursuit of the illusive Higgs Boson talk about the years they have given painstakingly chasing this particular particle.

We are introduced to the doc with the chief scientist looking at the biggest machine that has ever been built – one of a connecting four. It is staggering and looks like the grand plan of a James Bond story villain – not the big mamma needed to track down something that is smaller than a nuclear particle. Interestingly, this doc comes out two weeks or less after Interstellar the film that has put a Theoretical Physicist in the movie world as co-producer. Here though, more feasibly, there are 10 thousand people over 100 nations involved and with a vested interest in this detective story with brains. Over one hundred thousand computers are involved in formatting the data that will come out of first beam – the initial experiment.

What would make this a great drama is the tension between money and rationale: in 1993, it all goes a little political when the 5billion cost of the operation seems unjustified as its application cannot be readily defined. David Kaplan – head of those participating who is a theorist as opposed to experimentalist physician explains that to an economist – it has no military, no apparent commercial application. We have quarks and leptons (matter) and bosons (force carriers) and thus far we have a boson missing which is responsible for holding all matter together or so discovered Peter Higgs in the 1960s. Finding this will help know how we can make progress. So then, if the plot in Interstellar is right and we have to find an alternative universe beyond Saturn because ours has been spent, this discovery would help that aim – though why Interstellar didn’t say instead of focusing on worm hole theories is a mystery. Which brings in the French when the story of Particle Fever takes a very peculiar turn: whilst at CERN in Geneva there is the pre ‘first beam’ excitement which Monica Danford – one of the project leaders describes as a bunch of six year olds, Le Monde predicts ‘the world is going to disappear.’ The French believe that the beam will turn the world into a worm hole and will burn inwardly. Amazing, they were refuted and proved wrong but a bit more of this delicious turn in events could have been made.

The bleep in the centre of a screen denotes what all the fuss is about and there is a celebration with a rap song - sung by a girl geek to bring it all home complete with vast amounts of imagery relating to science benchmarks as pictorial accompaniment. Now though, there’s more for the armchair Physicist to digest: whilst the implications of two leaks in a vastly complicated machine are crisis managed, get this....Physicists are looking for confirmation of Symmetries to explain the laws of nature or explanations as to why the Universe is so big and keeps expanding -  multiverse explanations that are potentially more lethal. By this time the viewer may feel bits of their now expanding brain coming through their nose. We are all looking avidly for a ‘peak’ of 5 Sigma to indicate the presence of Higgs (don’t ask) but when this does happen it is something of a tear jerker with Higgs himself now an old man wiping a handkerchief across his face disbelieving that this could happen in his lifetime.

This is less a story about a fever but a story about dogged determination and inner passion to see a vast, complex task to conclusion. It is as important as the pool system involved in the conquering of cancer or AIDS, with the massive and massively expensive Large Haddon Collider the billion dollar facilitator. It may be the case that the trip here has less importance than the efforts to cure sickness but the last thought and point posed by one of the main participating scientists is what is left as testament to entire shenanigans:  “the things that are the least important for our survival are the very things that make s humans.”

Particle Fever is out now on general release in selected theatres.

Gail Spencer

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