There's a story handed down from antiquity that the great mathematician Euclid was once asked by a student what gain there was in studying geometry. Euclid sarcastically commanded that the student be given a coin, for "he must profit from what he learns."
Euclid would have loved the idea of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the $9-billion particle accelerator located near Geneva, Switzerland, where thousands of scientists have collaborated in an effort to answer some fundamental but entirely esoteric questions about the nature of matter.
As physicist David Kaplan says to an economist during an early scene in the documentary Particle Fever, the purpose of the LHC, and of basic research in general, is not to ask about the potential return on investment but to ask: "What don't we know, and where can we make progress?"
For decades, the definition of progress in particle physics has come down to confirming the existence of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle first posited in 1964 that explains why other particles, including the ones that make up our world, have mass.
As the film explains, the Higgs is the linchpin of our current understanding of matter. Its particular properties may also relate to a deeper theory about reality as a whole, so the hunt for the Higgs is not just about crossing something off a scientist's to-do list. It's really about figuring out where we go from here, and hoping we're not at the end of the line when it comes to gleaning truths from a universe that wasn't necessarily built for us to understand.
But while that accounts for why physicists care about finding the Higgs, it doesn't predict the intense public interest that surrounded the particle's discovery, announced in the summer of 2012, and which continues to surround the LHC. The Nobel Prize-winning achievement made for an emotionally charged, though highly technical, presentation that was streamed live on the Internet, and became the most-viewed scientific lecture in history. Like the moon landings, it transcended science and was seen as a win for the human spirit – a testament to how far we've come despite all the foibles and setbacks that plague our species.
It's the human side of big science that Kaplan wanted to capture when he first conceived of making a documentary about the LHC, long before it was switched on. At that point it was far from clear that the experiment was going to get any attention at all outside the physics community, Kaplan says.
"Part of the motivation was that this amazing thing was going to happen and no one was going to hear about it."
Kaplan teamed up with director Mark Levinson, who himself came to film making after having earned a doctorate in particle physics. As Levinson describes it, the two disciplines have much in common. When a screenwriter develops a script, it's a model of reality, parallel in some ways to a theorist's mathematical model of nature. But then the models need to be tested, by building an experiment or, in the director's case, by shooting a film.
In developing their project, both Kaplan and Levinson realized they wanted to avoid the usual conventions of the science documentary by minimizing the physics lessons in the film and instead letting audiences into the lives of their scientist characters, exposing their hopes and fears as they strive toward the discovery of a lifetime.
As Nima Arkani-Hamed, one of the theorists featured in the film, puts it: "This is a case where the hype is approximately accurate." Arkani-Hamed, who as a child escaped from Iran with his family and grew up in Canada, conveys with intensity how the LHC is his generation's moon landing, a one-shot chance to push past the frontiers of knowledge.
Filmed over a five-year period during the final construction and subsequent operation of the LHC, Particle Fever offers an uncommonly genuine look at what the journey to the Higgs has been like for those on the inside. Emotions see-saw between unbridled enthusiasm for the project and deep anxieties about whether the LHC will actually work, and whether its findings will be sufficiently revealing. When the search reaches its dramatic climax – with the whole world watching, as it turns out – the result is definitive enough to celebrate, but ambiguous enough to provoke deeper reflections about the quest.
At its best, the film expertly juxtaposes the mind-boggling scale and technical precision of the LHC (in a visually stunning scene one of its main detectors is described as a "five-storey Swiss watch") with our yearning to understand our place in the universe. As Savas Dimopoulos, a theorist who serves as the film's voice of experience, observes: "The things that are least important to our survival are the very things that make us human."
Twenty-three centuries ago, Euclid would agree. Here's hoping the journey from LHC onward keeps us going for at least that much longer.