'Particle Fever' follows scientists' search for 'God particle'

Feb 28, 2014

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.
Credit Particle Fever

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

On March 14, 2013, experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland tentatively confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, sometimes referred to as the “God particle.” Its discovery was the culmination of nearly 30 years of work. The film "Particle Fever" captures the tension and drama in a group of dedicated scientists on the brink of a once in a lifetime discovery.

I talked to David Kaplan and Mark Levinson about how the theoretical physicist and documentarian teamed up to make this film. Particle Fever will have its theatrical premier on March 5 in New York City.

Kaplan: I was not making films for a living, I’m a particle physicist. And in roughly 2006 was when it became very clear that somebody had to record this event. And then Mark discovered there’s some physicist trying to make a documentary film about particle physics and this giant experiment. And Mark has a degree in particle physics and understood, in a way I think very few other people would, that there’s potential for great drama and also that the type of people, the characters involved, are certainly interesting enough to be characters in a documentary film.

The film documents the research being done at CERN in Switzerland from about 2007 to 2012 and that research had already been going on for 30 years or so. And at the time you start filming the researchers are about to test to see if all the work they’d been doing was worth it. So, like the researchers, Mark, did you ever question if anything good was going to come from this investment you were making?

I was very enthusiastic that something was going to come, but it did go on for a lot longer than I initially anticipated. But the filmmaking process, like physics, you’re taking a giant leap of faith into the unknown with uncertain results, and you’re hoping for the best. Its high risks and high rewards.

David, at one point you’re standing in front of an auditorium of people and you say “It’s hard for physicists to explain why they do this research.” And then the whole film is basically an attempt at an explanation. So why did you decide to make a film that you had the feeling people were going to have difficulty understanding?

The beginning of making the film was really just about telling a story and showing people this beautiful world and allowing as many people as possible to be a part of it. But along the way I definitely discovered what the real contribution is to society. And it is that there’s a small number of people who are really trying to figure out what this universe is, what reality is, what is the physical world we inhabit. In all kinds of ways, including the spin-offs that we gain from it, really the deeper answer is one of the beautiful things that we can contribute to humanity.

David, do you see this as the start of a film career?

[Laughs] I don’t really know the meaning of life, so I can’t really tell you what any of this means in terms of my personal experience. But all I know is I wanted this film to be made. And if it required me making this film with this great crew, fine. I know, and my wife reminds me every day, that I’m happiest when I do physics. So I think the bulk of my future has to do with some calculations and blackboards.