PARTICLE FEVER | MOVIE REVIEW

Kernel John may just become our resident Sheldon Cooper after this review. He sounds as excited as a Big Bang Theory character about the science and his love the Giant Hadron Collider. Now do not roll your eyes at this documentary that has been described as playing out with the suspense of a thriller. This is a film that is at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, 87% on Metacritic and 8/10 on IMDB. This is a seriously good film. Madman Entertainment has the rights to the film for distribution in Australia but there is no announcement yet as to actual release or format of release. I for one really hope this gets a cinema release, would love to see this on the big screen, the visuals look epic. I believe it is rated M and runs for 99mins. Enjoy John’s review……….all the best………JK.

 

PARTICLE FEVER MOVIE POSTER
PARTICLE FEVER | SALTY POPCORN REVIEW | MOVIE POSTER

 

REVIEW BY JOHN MCPARLAND

I had the greatest of pleasure in viewing the scientific documentary PARTICLE FEVER at the Sydney Film Festival this year.  The film recounts the search for and discovery of the Higgs boson, through experiments carried out at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva in Switzerland.

I love all things science-y, and could not resist the chance to see a documentary about physics.  That said, I did fear that I would be in an almost empty cinema with a few retired scientists and little else.  I have never been so pleased to be wrong.  Arriving 15 minutes early, I joined the end of a 200 meter long queue that snaked out of the complex and down George Street, full of hundreds of eager people waiting to see this film.  Moving into the cinema, ushers shuffled patrons along their rows, leaving no gaps and cramming us all in to what ended up being a capacity screening.  We were then greeted by the director and former theoretical physicist Mark Levinson, who seemed genuinely surprised and touched by the turnout for his film.  Enquiring as to how many people in the audience were professional scientists, roughly half a dozen members raised their hands.  The same response was received to the question of how many people were serious amateurs.  Scratching his head, Levinson then asked to the remaining uncommitted masses if we were all in the correct cinema, getting us to check out tickets to make sure it said “Particle Fever” on them.  This elicited a great deal of laughter and a generous round of applause, and I was truly taken aback by the sheer number of laypeople who had a genuine interest in physics.

 

PARTICLE FEVER LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
PARTICLE FEVER | SALTY POPCORN REVIEW | LARGE HADRON COLLIDER

 

The film follows a number of theoretical and experimental physicists in their search for the Higgs boson.  Theorised in 1964 by a number of physicists, among them Peter Higgs for which it is named, the Higgs boson is an elementary particle that gives mass to other particles.  It is generally not possible to view the Higgs boson in nature, as it rapidly decays into other particles.  Thus, an experiment was designed using the LHC to attempt to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang, with the hope that the Higgs boson might be glimpsed.  This was to be achieved by accelerating groups of protons to near the speed of light, smashing them together, and observing, through the mutual annihilation that ensued, the conversion of such tremendous amounts of energy into mass containing particles, courtesy of Einstein’s famous energy to mass equation E=mc2.  Basically, they orchestrate the world’s most massive explosion beneath the Franco-Swiss border and created the fundamental building blocks of reality from the ensuing destruction.  Science!

 

PARTICLE FEVER LARGE HADRON COLLIDER image
PARTICLE FEVER | SALTY POPCORN REVIEW | LARGE HADRON COLLIDER

 

Beginning in 2007, we follow our selected physicists as they go about their business thinking up the impossible and building the machines to test it.  Their excitement is palpable as we make our way though the years to the moment the LHC is switched on.  One of the physicists mentions how an entire scientific field is hanging on this single event, how it is bigger even than the moon landing.  This is because there are two competing theories in physics at the moment: supersymmetry and the multiverse.  As explained in the film, supersymmetry predicts that the Higgs boson should have a weight of 115 giga-electron volts (GeV) and in a universe bound by supersymmetry everything becomes discoverable and measurable.  The multiverse theory predicts that the Higgs boson should be 140 GeV, and if true means that our Universe’s existence is pure random luck, change is inevitable, nothing is fixed or measurable, and no new particles will ever be found as this information may well be contained within a different, unquantifiable, undiscoverable neighbouring universe.  The multiverse theory is like that disgruntled uncle at a wedding who is always trying to bring everyone down.  No one likes that guy.  If true, the multiverse would be the end of physics, as if our existence and everything in it has come about from pure random chance, what point is there in continuing to discover aspects of an unnatural, chaotic universe?  We might as well seek truth in a young child’s unordered finger painting.

 

PARTICLE FEVER HAPPY GEEKS IMAGE
PARTICLE FEVER | SALTY POPCORN REVIEW | HAPPY GEEKS

 

Thus, there is an underlying emotional aspect to the film, as physicists from both camps are pitted against each other.  Both sides have their theories, and both are worried they might be proven wrong, though those supporting supersymmetry seem to have more to fear.

In September of 2008, the first beam test at the LHC was successfully conducted to much fanfare and celebration, even Google changed its homepage in homage.  Nine days later scientists around the world were stunned when a liquid helium leak caused a massive explosion, crippling the LHC for more than a year.  In November 2009, after extensive repairs, the machine was turned on once again, with the first successful collision of research level beams occurring in March of 2010.  This event was shrouded in much trepidation as, following on from such a cataclysmic system failure, no one knew if the LHC would be successful in this endeavour.  But successful it was, and with Beethoven’s 9th pumping through the cinema, the film showed physicists, engineers, reporters and technicians collectively lose their mind, as graphic after graphic displayed the mutual beam annihilation and particle creation.  Two years later and after crunching all of the data, on the 4th of July 2012 an 83 year old Peter Higgs is seen shedding many a tear in an auditorium filled with uproarious applause, as physicists confirmed the theory he had postulated nearly 50 years earlier.  The Higgs boson had been found.

 

PARTICLE FEVER LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
PARTICLE FEVER | SALTY POPCORN REVIEW | LARGE HADRON COLLIDER

 

However, that was not to be the end.  The Higgs boson had been measured to have a mass of 125 GeV, right in the middle of the predicted range, neither proving nor disproving the theories of either faction.  The documentary ends with physicists pondering the possibilities of this unexpected insight.  More questions have been raised, and more research is needed to understand fully the implications of this discovery.  But far from being disappointed, the physicists seemed quite excited by the notion of going back to the drawing board to think ways of incorporating this new data.

The film is beautifully cut together, a true tribute to the talents of multiple Academy Award winner Walter Murch (APOCALYPSE NOW, THE ENGLISH PATIENT).  The “actors” are natural and believable.  Being physicists by trade, you would not think that they would have much stage presence, but all of those interviewed seemed quite at ease in front of the camera and were incredibly engaging.  The science of the film is targeted at a lay audience, is successfully explained and quite understandable.  That said, every now and then scenes of the physicists working at blackboards would be spliced into the film as narration took place.  Intrinsically, I knew that what they were doing was math, as it fit with the scene and theme of the documentary (science!).  However intellectually, this was like no math I had ever seen.  Math with numbers is something we can all understand.  Math with letters is something we all know exists.  But this math?  This was math with symbols.  Lines and squiggles and emblems and runes, not a letter or number in sight.  AT ALL.  The most recognisable elements were a few members of the Greek alphabet and they constituted far too small a component of the wall-sized equations these geniuses were working on for my tastes.  Never before has such a brief amount of footage made me feel so dumb.

Overall, this is a truly wonderful documentary, beautifully directed and portrayed.  The physicists are active and engaging, the score is emotive and the science is understandable.  If you have even a passing fancy towards scientific discovery, or simply wish to follow some of the most eager and excitable scientists you will ever meet as they delve into the deepest mysteries of creation itself, then PARTICLE FEVER is the film for you.

 

4 and a Half Pops