Particle Fever and the People Behind the Science

In our society, we have a tendency to view scientists as this mysterious entity that comes forth with bearings of marvelous new technologies or doomsday predictions along with the ability to produce miracles out of thin air in the blink of an eye.  Much of this is because there is a disconnect between the public and science.  You always hear about all of these amazing people who are responsible for changing the way we view the world the world, without much else about them.  These portraits lead to an inability to relate to these people.  That what this documentary “Particle Fever”  helps to change this as it follows the scientists who work at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider as they endeavor to gain a better understanding of the fundamental nature of the reality we live in.  But it does something a little more important, it works to show who that these mysterious scientists are people while adding transparency to a field of study beyond the reach of the general public.

To start off, most scientific fields have an entry bar that but them beyond the understanding of most of the public.  This has resulted in most people not understanding the way science works.  Unlike in TV where you can put a couple of scientist in a small room for a few hours and they suddenly have a solution to some crazily complex question, science takes time, and the LHC and physics in general is the epitome science that takes time.  Taking almost two decades to build, this documentary start right before its activation and then ends with the one of the theories it was built to test.  Beginning in the mid 20th century, physicists endeavored to come up with a complete model of particle physics.  The result was something called the standard model.  This model managed to describe everything that the physicists were discovering, but it hinged on one key component, a particle called the Higgs Boson.  This particle was first predicted in the 1960s, but the equipment to create and detect it did not exist.  It took 50 years for the equipment to be available for us to find it, and in 2013 we did, and the what was required was not something you can throw together in a couple of years, let alone a couple of hours.  More importantly, it shows the process behind the this discovery, and thus takes it out of the realm of miracle and into the realm of reality, showing that even the science where we probe things thousands of times smaller than the nucleus of an atom is something tangible and obtainable.

The job of the LHC is to detect particles that appear out of the debris of collisions between protons.  The goal here is to discover new particles and through them, construct an understanding of our universe.  In physics, the creation and discovering of new particles is the job of the experimentalists, understanding what those particles do and mean, is the job of the theorists.  What this documentary does a great job of is humanizing physicists by showing who they are as people and how much the LHC is the crux of their entire field.  For the experimentalists, many of them have been working on this project with the sound knowledge that they may need to wait for years to decades to see it finally live up to its potential, and at that point, there is an emotional aspect of the project that is required for people to stay, that is one of the things this documentary explores.  As for the theorists, many of them have spent entire lifetimes working on a theory that hinges on a single measurement and for a few, that measurement was the mass of the Higgs Boson if it even existed.  The discovery of the Higgs was a very important milestone in our understanding of the universe as it said that one of the most successful models of particle physics was correct, if there was no Higgs, than our very fundamental understanding of the nature of the universe would be wrong.  So naturally, this experiment was something that these people were very eager to see and scary, because their life’s work was on the line.  Even when it came to announcing its discovery, many people were really nervous, as its mass would play a very crucial role in the future of particle physics. This reality of science is something that is not discussed very often in the public and that is part of the reason why scientists are discussed in this impersonal way, people fail to see the nature of scientific work and the human drive behind it.  This documentary does a very excellent job of doing just that, showing the human side of science.

Out of experience, one of the reasons why people have such a hard time with science is that they don’t understand its process.  When you have people up in arms over vaccines, GMOs or even the LHC (people worried it couple produce a black hole), a large portion of those people are those who don’t understand the science behind what is going on and as such disregard it or take up positions that are not scientifically sound.  One of the best ways to fix this would be to increase the scientific literacy of our society as a whole, and humanizing scientists would be a great place to start, and that is what this documentary does and does well.

 

Levinston, Mark, dir. “Particle Fever”. 2013, Film

(Can be viewed on Netflix)

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