Documentary makes particle physics accessible


The formula for establishing new scientific ideas is pretty straightforward: Develop a theory, test it through practical experimentation, reformulate the theory as needed.

As physicist David Kaplan explains in the brilliant, majestic and inspiring new documentary “Particle Fever,” things aren’t so simple when it comes to particle physics.

The questions it poses are so big, so fundamental, one can’t imagine they could ever be solved with a couple of test tubes. Kaplan, an energetic, compelling on-screen presence, provides a couple of examples: “How matter got created. … And what (is) the deep fundamental theory of nature?”

There is a plethora of theories to answer these questions. In the 1970s, the scientific community even arrived at a sort of consensus, called the Standard Model of particle physics. But as Kaplan, who teaches physics at Johns Hopkins University, puts it, no matter how clever, elegant, even beautiful they were, these theories could never be tested. We couldn’t know if they actually were true.

So a series of tests was conceived in the mid-1980s to prove or disprove them. It took another couple of decades to build the machine capable of conducting the tests: a particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, built at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland. It was fired up on Sept. 10, 2008.

Co-produced by Kaplan and former theoretical physicist Mark Levinson and directed by Levinson, “Particle Fever” explores with awe-inspiring precision, and in remarkably accessible language, how 10,000 scientists and engineers from around the world built what in effect is the ultimate test tube for particle physics. The 17-mile-long collider, Kaplan claims, is the largest machine ever built by humankind.

Kaplan is the perfect narrator, breaking down terrifyingly complex ideas with quiet authority, patience and great wit. Filmed over seven years, “Particle Fever” painstakingly shows how the collider is being used to give us a picture of the universe just a heartbeat after the Big Bang. The results are sensational: In 2010, it re-created a miniature Big Bang. 

Particle Fever should be compulsory viewing at all high schools. It inspires nothing less than passion in anyone curious about the world.

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