Monthly Archive for: ‘March, 2014’

Particle Fever — Film Review

Particle Fever

Directed by Mark Levinson



This is a documentation of science as a media circus.  It is a public relations infomercial for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that operates the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland.  I was disappointed in it to the point of loathing.  I was expecting something akin to the old NOVA programs on PBS, where they seriously examine the scientific issues and provide in depth biographical portraits of the scientists involved.  It wasn’t anything like that at all.  This was superficial and childish.  It was a cross between the Oscars and a cheerleading section at a basketball game.  But this is a game that no one understands or knows how to play.  So it is hard to understand why anyone is cheering or what they are cheering for. 

They showed a graphic with an H in the center of it and told us that’s the Higgs Boson; that’s what we’re looking for.  It’s the key to the universe.  It’s the long sought Holy Grail of particle physics.  Well, . . . OK.  But no attempt was made to explain what it is and why it is so important, or why you need this gargantuan apparatus to find it.  Maybe they decided that we are all just too dumb to get it, so they would try to create some phony drama that would hop us up and entertain us.  But it didn’t work on me.  I have too much curiosity — which was the main justification they gave for building this behemoth in the first place.  The film should have pandered to that curiosity that is driving the scientists.  The scientific issues should be engaging and interesting enough in their own right to hold the interest of the audience.  But the filmmakers simply didn’t believe in it.  They opted to make something like late night television.  I’m getting more annoyed the more I think about it.

A hundred years ago a lone, eccentric scientist, driven by little more than his own peculiar interests, could build an apparatus in his basement that was capable of making important discoveries.  That is no longer the case.  It costs a lot of money to build and operate a mother bear like the Large Hadron Collider, and for that they need a lot of support from political leaders and the public, since it admittedly does not produce anything of immediate economic value.  Perhaps the debacle in the United States of the Superconducting Super Collider struck fear in their hearts, when the U.S. Congress, in 1993, canceled the project to build the world’s largest and most energetic particle accelerator after it was well under way.  Perhaps the thinking is that the way to garner public support is through propaganda, public relations gimmicks, and advertising, rather than trying to educate people about the subtleties of particle physics and the deep structure of the universe.  I disagree, but I am certainly no expert on public relations.  My opinion is that this attitude is mistaken and this film is misguided in its fundamental approach to the subject.  It is an unfortunate missed opportunity both to educate the public about recent developments in particle physics and to broaden the base of public support for large scale scientific enterprises of the type done in the Large Hadron Collider.  I don’t think this film is going to be popular, and I don’t think is serves the scientists well who participated in it and who care about pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding the origins and structure of the universe.  Even if you are suckered by the light entertainment this film offers, you won’t know very much more about the Higgs boson when you leave than you did when you went in.  

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