Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Particle Fever

You know you live in Cambridge, MA, when the opening night screening of a documentary on the physicists working on the question of the Highs Particle draws a packed house. It probably didn't hurt that the theater was on the Red Line's Kendall/MIT stop, but I've still seen tumbleweeds roll through cinemas playing surer things.

Having guests helps too:

Mark Levinson & Dr. Sheldon Glashow

That's director Mark Levinson on the left and Nobel Laureate Dr. Sheldon Glashow on the right, taking questions after the movie. There actually weren't a whole lot of questions asked; I suspect that a lot of the folks in the audience were either conversant enough with the subject matter to not require explanation or (as is sadly the case for me), not really qualified to ask about the science. Kind of a bummer for me; as much as I would not necessarily have understood the resultant conversation that well, it might have been fun to hear. Given the crowd, it wasn't the same sort of Q&A as a film festival, where it's often the process of making the film that is of the most interest to the audience. Levinson did mention that they had a parallel track following another one of the four experiments taking place at the LHC, but apparently Monica, Fabiola, and Martin were enough - and that they were lucky that those core characters were at the LHC for just the right amount of time to give the movie a consistent "cast" from start to finish.

It was a nice talk with "Shelly" Glashow, though. He's 81 but looking fairly spry, talking about how these days, neutrinos are his favorite particles and how he and several friends & colleagues did the work that Peter Higgs built upon that led to everything in the movie.

I liked him, and that's one of the things that made a big impression on me with this movie - it portrays science, even cutting-edge science that beggars the imagination at both ends of the scale, as something regular people do. Brilliant regular people, but there's no reason for a young girl in school to not want to grow up to be Monica Dunford, and the occasional foibles of the theoretical physicists are charmingly human, rather than evidence of how different these guys can be.

Particle Fever

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, DCP)

Lots of sci-fi movies will have scenes of scientists frantically scribbling on chalkboards, with the directors at a loss for how to make this exciting. I don't envy them their task; it's usually being done by a new character in a detour from everything else going on, and the stuff being written or said is likely to make those who would find this activity thrilling snicker. Particle Fever has people scrawling on chalkboards too, but it's people we know after they have spent some time explaining just what is going on and showing us just how amazing the world's largest physics lab is.

That would be the Large Hadron Collider, a seventeen-mile ring on the border of Switzerland and France, built to accelerate protons in opposite directions to see if their collision produces a free Higgs Boson, a particle predicted by the standard model of physics but never actually observed when filming started. It is an awesome place, if only for the scale of the thing: Director Mark Levinson and his crew recite the dimensions we've all heard from magazine articles, but allow the place to impress us on its own. It can't help but do so; this is what everyone who designs a set for a science fiction movie is trying to capture, from the incongruously futuristic buildings in the middle of farmland to the five story tunnels packed with hand-soldered electronics to the great-looking control center. The environment pulls the audience in, letting us see how big and coordinated and cool the project is.

Levinson has quite the amiable group of subjects, who mostly fall into two groups David Kaplan is the theoretical physicist we see the most of (in addition to narrating when that's necessary, he's also a producer on the film who shares the "a film by" credit with Levinson), and he introduces us to two others: Savas Dimopoulos, a Greek-American mentor week works on Nobel-level projects, and Nima Arkani-Named, a Princeton professor considered one of the top minds of his generation. Monica Dunford, an American postdoc at the LHC working on CERN's Atlas experiment, is the experimental physicist we see most often, joined by coworker Martin Aleksa of Austria and Fabiola Gianotti, the experiment's director. A large part of the reason why the movie works is that this core group is very easy for laypeople to connect with; Kaplan and Dunford especially are shown to be able to explain what's going on in a way that makes the audience smile. Having this distinct and likable set of personalities (no condescension, ugly academic rivalries, our forced eccentricity), makes it a lot easier to connect the work they're doing to the world we live in, no matter how arcane the theories in question seem at first.

Full review at EFC

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