The premise to "Particle Fever," Milwaukee Film’s members screening selection last week, doesn’t exactly scream spectacular entertainment. A film about scientists questing through a world of classrooms and computer screens for an invisible theoretical particle and debating harder-than-diamond scientific theory sounds less destined for the big screen and more doomed for high school classrooms, playing to drowsy students on a pre-break half day.
Yet Mark Levinson’s documentary about the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 and the experiment’s five-year buildup defies its educational film expectations. Yes, side effects likely include a rudimentary understanding of the current state of particle physics, but it’s never simply a dense, dry lecture. Rather, "Particle Fever" weaves together an intellectually and emotionally engaging story that efficiently translates years of scientific anticipation, frustration and excitement – even to viewers whose understanding of stuff like protons extends as far as the Ghostbusters’ weapon of choice.
The mission is the Higgs boson, boldly nicknamed "God particle." The experiment’s methodology is almost amusingly simplistic: smash two beyond microscopic particles together and see what flies out of the wreckage. However, the machinery behind it – a monumental, ring-shaped particle collider a decade and over 100 nations in the making, built underground near Geneva, Switzerland – is anything but basic.
If discovered, the Higgs boson could point physicists in the direction of answering some of mankind’s greatest questions about the universe. If not, those same physicists will have to take a long, sobering look in the mirror, realizing that decades of theories and research have led them barking up the wrong tree. Simplified even more, it serves as a progress check: Either the experiment shows science is on the right track, or it’s back to page one. Or the ridiculous third option that it forms a black hole that eats the planet (spoiler alert: It doesn’t).
There are some big conceptual ideas at play in "Particle Fever," yet much of the film focuses on the little people making it happen. Levinson’s movie gets down in the trenches with the scientists, from the people running the experiments out in Switzerland to a duo of theorists dreaming up ideas from a distance (one particularly horrifying one involving multi-verses could basically make physics null, void and impossible to predict).
Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch manages to take seven years of footage, compress that and find the fascinating story, one that bounds back and forth easily between the experiment and the ideas, naturally blending explaining the dense concepts with simple yet effective graphics with personalities without sacrificing anything in the process. Early on, "Particle Fever" wrangles tension from merely waiting for a bleep on a computer screen.
The result is a story that moves and carries a surprisingly dramatic charge.
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