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American scientists couldn’t ask for better PR than they’ve been getting lately. Take the recent reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the seemingly ubiquitous media presence of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the upcoming television show I F*cking Love Science. We may rank behind Latvia and Vietnam in science education these days, but at least the propaganda for the side of reason has been good. Now we have Particle Fever, a playfully serious new documentary that tells the story of the largest and most important scientific experiment of our time: the search for the Higgs Boson particle. Like those other science-based entertainments, it offers a fascinating education, but it also serves as an urgent work of advocacy.
The experiments in question, three decades in the making and employing more than 10,000 physicists from more than 100 countries, were basically a large-scale version of that simplest of scientific processes: ramming two things together to see what happens. In this case, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, tried to ram two protons into each other at the speed of light; scientists hoped the resulting data would confirm the existence of the elusive Higgs (which some journalists have called the “God particle”), the properties of which would either confirm or disprove some of the most popular theories about the fundamental nature of the universe.
The science is certainly dense, but the film offers us several charismatic young physicists to translate for a nonscientific audience. Most of the explaining falls to Mark Kaplan (also a producer of the film), a sunny Johns Hopkins professor with a slackerish appearance. Kaplan represents a younger generation of physicists to whom the Higgs Boson is the defining event of their careers. As Kaplan notes, it is the rare historical moment when “an entire field hinges on a single event.”
While the film follows the many triumphs and setbacks of this massive scientific undertaking, director Mark Levinson returns early and often to the human element. He revels in the inevitable nerdery that comes when this many scientists get together—including a cringe-worthy rap about the history of the Large Hadron Collider—and has a lot of fun exposing the (mostly) friendly rivalry between theoretical and experimental physicists.
But the moments of levity never distract from the film’s serious mission of convincing the audience this type of work is worth funding. Early on, the filmmakers point out that the Large Hadron Collider was initially funded by the U.S. government—before an impatient Congress pulled the plug in 1993. We even get to see clips of two Republican congressmen railing against the project on the House floor. The message is clear: Washington is not a good place for science anymore. Particle Fever, however, is a worthy entry in the burgeoning pop-culture movement to change that.