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Reality Show: Physicists Seek the Truth of the Universe (or Universes) in Particle Fever

Wednesday, Mar 12 2014

The discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 was a climactic moment for the researchers working on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The Higgs, a particle that physicists needed to find in order to flesh out their picture of the universe, is supposed to be responsible for giving mass to other fundamental building blocks of matter. Essentially, the previously theoretical Higgs particle is what makes life possible.

Physicist David Kaplan and physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson documented the search for the Higgs particle in their new film, Particle Fever, which makes a human drama out of the attempt to know more intimately the grandest and the most minute aspects of existence.

The Large Hadron Collider was built to find the Higgs and learn its mass. Depending on what scientists found, the so-called "Standard Model" would either be confirmed or have to be tossed out the window. A Higgs with a lighter mass would likely mean that theories about supersymmetry were pointing researchers in the right direction. In supersymmetry, there are fundamental building blocks that add up to create the conditions for life. If the Higgs had a heavier mass, as some suspected it would, then it would lend credence to what's known as the multiverse theory, which says that there are multiple universes. If the theory of the multiverse it true, essentially it puts limits on what physicists can know about the laws of nature. If there are other universes with different laws that humans can't detect, then all the data collected so far about our own universe could represent not the ultimate rules of reality, but a set of rules governing just one of an infinite number of realities.

This drama is what drives the story in the film, and although it may have been played up, Kaplan says it was a realistic depiction of the conflicts that arise among theorists who've been putting their money on very different-looking horses. Kaplan adheres to the belief in a universe governed by supersymmetry, while some of his colleagues in the film lean toward the multiverse. In the end, the mass of the Higgs was discovered to be right in the middle, meaning neither theory was right for sure, at least not right in the ways researchers had imagined. At the film's conclusion, the collider is shut down for an upgrade, and physicists remain at a crossroads while they analyze the data from the LHC's first run and continue to refine their theories.

SF Weekly: What's the primary audience you had in mind with this film?

David Kaplan: We'd like to reach out to people who are intellectually curious but who did not think they necessarily had any real interest in physics. We didn't want to leave behind those people who are interested in physics, and we didn't want the physicists themselves to look at it and say it's a bunch of crap. We wanted to strike a balance where we were doing something which was true and was compelling and also made sense. Trying to get all three of those in one film about particle physics is very hard. We love when people come to a screening and say, "My wife told me to come to a screening. I thought I'd never like this movie, but my God, it was fantastic."

Mark Levinson: In a sense the questions that are asked are questions that physicists and non-physicists alike think about and often do. And it's a broad audience that we're looking for. We're definitely not making it for a specialized audience.

In making a film about sophisticated concepts, you've got to make choices about how much you'll try to explain. How did you make those decisions?

Kaplan: Well, that was by far, singularly, the hardest part of making the film. And we made sure that the story had real structure and that the story dictated to us what physics needed to be explained and told and what physics was not necessary. All the physics explanations were to support the story and not simply to teach the viewer about this type of physics. I actually think if you put physics in that context, it's a lot more memorable. It's part of a story, there's a context to which you learn it, as opposed to just a very beautiful explanation.

Levinson: Physics came in at the end; in the early stages we had almost no physics. We would do many test screenings. [Film editor] Walter [Murch] and I both come from the narrative fiction world where you do test screenings and get feedback. And we would assess at each screening – where did it seem like audiences got lost, based on the questions afterward, and that would let us know what we needed to explain. And then our mantra was, "Just enough, just in time." And that's what we stuck to.

Since the LHC got started, what do you think the media have gotten wrong? And right?

Kaplan: The media want to find out what the latest and greatest discovery is, and unfortunately the public doesn't really have a context for these discoveries. But most human beings don't know or don't understand quantum mechanics and the underpinnings of these discoveries. So I think it's very challenging for the media to tell a story about cutting-edge physics, and both the media, and even the scientists who talk to the media, end up coming up with soundbites to say what has been discovered and what it is. But that said, I think that the discovery of the Higgs was covered so extensively, so far beyond what either of us ever imagined, that there were a lot of right things there. That it is something we've looked at for many years, that it is a key to the creation of matter. And I think actually the media did an admirable job within the constraints that they have to try to get this and try to explain it. And I've seen a handful of very beautiful explanations along the way in the media.

About The Author

Emilie Mutert


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