Whatever happened to the Large Hadron Collider? Huge news back in the day, it seemed to fall out of the public consciousness a little once it didn’t cause the end of the world. Thankfully though, the documentary Particle Fever (2013) exists to bring those of us not boffiny enough to have kept up to date with all the goings on, up to speed on all the particle mashing fun.
It is truly incredible how enormous the Large Hadron Collider is. Also a little ironic that the machine for studying the most mind-bendingly small particles known, or guessed, by humanity is the largest piece of machinery that we have ever built. As interesting as the size and scale of the undertaking is, Particle Fever is not about that, so the film quickly jumps along to the meaty science chatter. This is usually the bit where I switch off, not being at all a science head, through study or in terms of having much casual interest. But as with so many documentaries, the quality of talking heads is of utmost importance. In, amongst others, Monica Dunford, David Kaplan and Nima Arkani-Hamed, this film has warm personalities who are able to convey their undoubted scientific genius to chumps like me. Not a dumbed down, animated with pretty pictures ‘lite’ version of their theories and hopes for the outcomes of the Collider, but some of the actual awe-inspiring complexity of it all. It is also nice that for all their intelligence and estimations, no one really knows how the initial experiments will work, which makes their unfolding onscreen all the more tense. The film is best when keeping the presentation slick but simple. It falls into the trap of getting a little silly when attempting to counter the issue of representing sub-atomic collisions visually. It is something so hard to visualise that the best approach would have been to have us see the effect on the people in the room and have them explain it. Rather than trying to emphasise the momentous nature of the moment with images of Monet paintings and soaring classical music.
Generally documentaries try and tell you a huge story. Many docos on this subject would start with the history of physics and the long germination of the ideas currently being tested. But this film, whilst it weaves enough of that information in, focuses in on the now. As such, it is able to convey just what a huge idea all of this is and why you should care, at least for the 100 or so minutes that the film runs for. Plus even if it is not in your particular field of interest, there is still something in this momentous achievement that should be celebrated. When was the last time you saw the expertise of 100s of countries and billions upon billions of dollars, being geared toward an outcome with no immediate commercial or military outcome? The film gives a deep insight into a world that you may not be aware of. Here, the different fields of theoretical and experimental physics are explained and explored. The abstract vs the real. Being a hippy, my heart lies with the slightly artistic bent of theoretical physics, with its “beautiful ideas.” For a film about physics and the so-called ‘God particle’ it is refreshing that there is not an obsession with religion and the ramifications, if any, this research has with a Western conception of God. Some of the physicists share personal reflections on the research and its relation to that space, but it is never a focal point.
Verdict: It is hard for films about really complex scientific ideas to be both comprehensible to layman Arts graduates like myself, without dumbing down the soul of them. Particle Fever walks the line well and the crew of charismatic (!) and engaging physicists involved means it’s an enjoyable line as well. Pint of Kilkenny