'Particle Fever' Conveys the Thrill of Finding the Higgs Boson

by Cynthia Fuchs

13 March 2014

Particle Fever tells a fascinating, intangible, vastly complex story of what it means to discover the Higgs boson, specifically, what it means for a fascinating, emotional, wholly appealing assembly of scientists.

Understanding Everything

cover art

Particle Fever

Director: Mark A. Levinson
Cast: David Kaplan, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos, Monica Dunford, Fabiola Gianotti, Martin Aleska, Mike Lamont

(Abramorama and Bond 360)
US theatrical: 7 Mar 2014 (Limited release)

Monica Dunford rides her bike to work. More than once in Particle Fever, the camera follows her along un-busy streets in her neighborhood, on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland, her head helmeted, her pants leg Velcroed. But as typical as she may look, Monica is not. She’s an experimental physicist, for one thing, and for another, she works at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

This is the place where everything changed. Everything. It’s the place where, on 4 July 2012, a dedicated company of scientists found the Higgs boson. Dunford records her thoughts at the time, one of several video-diary-like moments: “I don’t think I can describe the excitement,” she says, her hair pulled back, her hands in motion, and a fraction of the gigantic collider—chips and tubes and cables—overwhelming the background of the shot. “The entire control room is like a group of six-year-olds whose birthday is next week, you know, and there’s gonna be cake, there’s gonna be presents, their friends are gonna be there, and they just know its going to be great.” 

As she speaks, the film cuts to what she’s talking about: a group of people in a control room, in front of monitors, their id badges dangling on lanyards. Such moments anchor Particle Fever, which tells a fascinating, intangible, vastly complex story of what it means to discover the Higgs boson, specifically, what it means for a fascinating, emotional, wholly appealing assembly of scientists. The film mirrors Dunford’s own explanation of physics, more specifically, for her, experimental physics. This, she says as the camera follows her out of the control room, hard hat in hand, biker’s bag slung over her shoulder, into the tunnel, is the “hands on aspect. It’s about taking a theory, which is abstract, and making it real.” And with that, she dons her hat and heads through a set of vacuum glass doors, the handheld camera bobbing as if in excitement: “How do you build an experiment to discover something the theory predicts? That aspect is what I love.”

Monica’s enthusiasm is more than infectious in this film called Particle Fever, an impassioned celebration of science. It’s also replicated and transmuted into various forms, which might best be described as hyper-focused persistence, nerdish reserve, and absolute dedication, hailing from many nations and backgrounds, multiple generations and inspirations. Now they seek to explain, or at least gesture toward what the Higgs means (this with help from animation and a thrilling soundtrack). A particle first theorized by Peter Higgs in 1964, the Higgs seems discoverable as the LHC is completed under the auspices of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

This is the moment the film begins, in 2008. Cameras take you through the 17-mile tunnel so you might see the phenomenal network of hallways and wires, “five stories completely filled with microelectronics,” says Monica, “like a five story Swiss watch.” The film notes, rather in passing, that CERN’s world-changing project was undertaken when a potential US version, the superconducting super collider, was cancelled by Congress in 1993, a point underlined by footage in which Republican Representative Sherwood Boehlert of NY offers this bit of wisdom: “I doubt anyone believes the most pressing issues facing the nation include an insufficient understanding of the origins of the universe.” 

Particle Fever begs to differ, convincingly, with the help of scientists like Monica Dunford, who’s been involved with the project since she was a super-lucky post-doc in 2006. Repeatedly, you see scientists at work, walking in corridors with their laptops and tablets in hand, ever ready to show their latest work to whatever colleagues they might encounter. Monica works on a team headed by Fabiola Gianotti, who says her study of literature, music, and philosophy helped shape her PhD in experimental sub-nuclear physics, in particular, her fascination with “big questions”.

An experimentalist like Monica, Gianotti works with theorists like Johns Hopkins’ David Kaplan, long-haired and reliably funny, challenging an economist who wonders about the economic return of the LHC. “Basic science has to happen at a level where you’re not asking what is the economic gain. It has to happen at a level when you’re asking what do we not know and where can we make progress,” says Kaplan. “What is the LHC good for? Could be nothing other than understanding everything.”

Kaplan knows the LHC may disprove his own favorite theory, that the universe is ordered according to kind of super-symmetry. Kaplan subscribes to this theory at least in part because his mentor, Stanford’s Savas Dimopoulos, conceived it decades ago: “Little did know that experiments would take much longer,” he smiles, “and here I am 30 years later and I am still not knowing the truth.” Dimopoulos’ reasons have to do with his interest in theoretical physics, an interest piqued when he was a child. His family fled Turkey during the “ethnic tensions between Greeks and Turks over the island of Cyprus,” he says, at which point he became aware that he might believe two opposite things at the same time.

Worried about this illogic, he took up science, where “the truth wouldn’t depend on the eloquence of the speaker, the truth would be absolute.” This even if the truth remains elusive because current technologies can’t apprehend it. Among other surprising and lovely stories, Dimopoulos recalls that when he was a child, his mother described to him a Biblical paradise, a place that “never ends.” Rather than feeling soothed, he says he was terrified: “I started panicking, I started crying.” Though his mother reassured him that it would be beautiful, he says, “This idea of eternity, something infinite, scared me.”

And so he seeks to understand it, explain it, model it. The supersymmetry model’s sort-of opposite is described by its main proponent, Princeton’s Nima Arkani-Hamed. “There is a scientific alternative to believing in someone who’s out there twiddling the dials very finely for things to work out,” he submits, “And this alternative, said briefly, is that everything we see in our observed universe is actually a very small part of a much, much vaster multiverse.” If this model is correct, worries Kaplan, “The Higgs may be the last particle we ever see,” owing to the limits of technologies, of how we can see. “We’ll never get access to the deeper theory.”

As Particle Fever closes, the pursuit proceeds. The Higgs discovery doesn’t precisely prove either theory, though it does make clear that science does what it means to do, by sorting out possibilities, setting out truths, and posing new questions. Just so, the movie ends where science might have begun, in the Chauvet caves in Southern France, where paintings record early humans’ efforts to document what they saw. That these images are invoked in Particle Fever by footage from Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is deliriously perfect, as dreams and theories come together, along with art and science, hope and resilience. For physics theorists and experimentalists, the future is expanding.

Particle Fever


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