Movie review: Physics documentary tracks down the elusive 'God particle'



Mark Levinson’s riveting documentary “Particle Fever” chronicles the launch of the Large Hadron Collider and the most expensive scientific experiment in history.

  • PARTICLE FEVER ••• 1/2•

    Rated: Not rated. Starring: Martin Aleksa, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos. Director: Mark Levinson. Running time: 99 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

A documentary that wrings cheers from an audience might be a rare thing, but it's difficult not to get caught up in the rapture of "Particle Fever." Since 2008, CERN (the European organization for nuclear research) has been conducting experiments on the world's largest particle accelerator in an effort to find proof of the existence of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle sometimes referred to as the "God particle." The film tells the story of the Higgs boson's discovery and, even for those who think nuclear physics is purely for brainiacs, it's an entertaining, thought-provoking ride.

On the French/Swiss border near Geneva, CERN's Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile-long accelerator, is at the center of the most expensive scientific experiment ever conducted. Proof of the boson's existence would help validate a theory of how all matter in the universe is given mass. How the particle, among the smallest ever detected, actually does this is not so easy to explain, but the race to find it is engaging and moving. Physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson documents the efforts of scientists from more than 100 countries across the globe to work on the project which was purposely nonmilitaristic. The LHC is no secretive project and has been public.

There is animosity between theorists and experimentalists who each have their way of doing science, but by the film's end, none of that matters. The scientists and engineers working on the nuts and bolts of the project and the theorists who first proposed the existence of the boson are all vindicated.

The particle, named for British scientist Peter Higgs, was first theorized by him and others in the mid-1960s. The announcement of the discovery in 2012, when Higgs was 83, was major world news.

Levinson's film gains dramatic traction as it goes along because he filmed the project as it was developing. We are in the center of the action, not just watching talking heads discussing an event in the past. Levinson takes us right up to the point in 2012 when the LHC was shut down for a period of two years for maintenance and to examine the collected data. "Particle Fever" instills in the viewer a desire to follow the team's progress when CERN fires up the collider again this year.

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