How do you make a film about science? First, find a great story.
That's where physicist David Kaplan and director Mark Levinson started with "Particle Fever," a new documentary about physics and physicists that shows science as a human drama. It focuses on the researchers and their stories, bringing a film about heavy-duty science to the human level. It begins just before the activation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an enormous underground machine in Europe that accelerates protons to nearly the speed of light before smashing them together and then recording the cascade of particles created by those collisions. The goal is to improve our understanding of the fundamental factors that govern the universe.
I had a chance to interview Kaplan and Levinson about the film and record a podcast of our conversation, which is embedded below.
The LHC, which recreates the conditions present shortly after the Big Bang, is located at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, on the border of Switzerland and France. The film tracks six scientists in an attempt to show what happened when the LHC was turned on, when the machine broke down, and what the scientists discovered.
The film highlights the compelling drama behind the massive international effort that made it possible to discover the last missing piece of what's called the Standard Model of particle physics, a particle known as the Higgs boson. It took thousands of scientists, engineers, and others, collaborating for more than two decades to build the LHC. They did it all for a simple purpose: to understand the world better.
It doesn't hurt to have some serendipity along the way.
"The way things worked out, it's almost like it followed a script," said Levinson. "I did not really count on a discovery while it was happening. So I thought, there's drama to it, looking at these people's lives, that that would be an interesting story, I had no idea that it would turn out to be as dramatic as it did."
The film's most triumphant scene, which took place at CERN on July 4, 2012, is sneakily emotional. The researchers announce their results, and the impressive statistical significance of five sigma, which means that there is about a one in 3.5 million chance that their data resulted from random events other than the presence of the Higgs boson. Physicists, both in a lecture hall in Switzerland, and huddled around screens around the world, react emotionally, including Peter Higgs, who predicted the existence of the now-eponymous boson nearly 50 years earlier.
It was a long voyage for science, and, more importantly, the people behind it.
That's why Kaplan, a physics professor at Johns Hopkins University, thought this would be a good film.
As he began talking to other scientists, "what the discovery or non-discovery would be I had no idea," he said. "But the hope was that enough information would come out that we could last long enough that you would watch people evolve, which is what telling a story is. You watch the transition of human thought or of a character."
'Particle Fever' premiered earlier this month in selected cities, and is expanding to more theaters over the next several weeks. More information about the film and where it is showing is available here.