THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF A GOD PARTICLE GO I
A Spotlite on MARK LEVINSON and His Documentary PARTICLE FEVER
By Tyler Malone
The God Particle. Most physicists hate the nickname given to the Higgs boson by physicist Leon M. Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi. The mainstream media uses the term almost exclusively these days rather than utter that other, more unfamiliar, term which they see as alienating to the scientifically illiterate general public. Peter Higgs himself, after whom the particle is officially named, claimed that calling the particle the “God Particle” was inappropriate and sensationalistic. And yet, while I agree with most scientists that the name does a number of disservices, it does help capture the imagination of some people who might otherwise remain uninterested, and it does help emphasize the uncanny importance of this special little subatomic particle.
Mark Levinson”s extraordinary new documentary Particle Fever details the scientific community”s search for the God Particle: the Higgs boson. And though Mark Levinson”s movie avoids all but a few casual mentions to this divine moniker, the idea that the Higgs boson is fundamental and consequential to our world is both fundamental and consequential to the film.
As one of the main physicists featured in the documentary, David Kaplan, explains: the Higgs is believed by scientists to be “the crucial piece responsible for holding matter together. It is connected to a field which fills all of space, and which gives particles like the electron mass, and allowed them to get caught in atoms, and thus, is responsible for the creation of atoms, molecules, planets, and people. Without the Higgs, life as we know it wouldn”t exist.” There but for the grace of a God particle goes not only I, but us all.
So this is an important topic to keep on our radar, and Mark Levinson”s documentary Particle Fever does a great job at filling in the uninitiated. He brilliantly captures the search for this particle, focusing on CERN”s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, as it beams and collides its first subatomic particles on the world stage. Not only does the film show these initial experiments at the LHC, but also it introduces us to a number of physicists whose theories rest on whatever data we will mine from these unprecedented experiments. If it sounds slightly interesting but like it might not make for riveting edge-of-your-seat viewing, you”ll be in for a pleasant surprise. Even to those up to speed on the discoveries made at the LHC, this is entertaining and spellbinding stuff.
Just as David Fincher somehow made a bunch of soon-to-be-social-media-elites typing at keyboards must-see art and entertainment in The Social Network, so too does Mark Levinson somehow get a bunch of data-crunching experimental physicists and hypothesizing theoretical physicists to keep us engaged and interested without ever veering into boring university lecture territory. The film doesn”t play like a talking head doc, but is instead a fascinating story about the people on the front lines of the scientific frontier. Maybe it”s the fact that Mark Levinson has worked on a number of Hollywood narrative films (including The Social Network) that has allowed him to wield storytelling techniques so well in the documentary setting. Whatever it is that enables him to get away with turning science into mesmerizing movie magic, there”s no denying that Particle Fever is a documentary worthy of some of its own fevered enthusiasm.
Tyler Malone: Your background is in physics, but you”ve been working in film for quite some time now. How did you make your way from the world of science to the world of film?
Mark Levinson: It”s a funny thing. It seems like such a dramatic change from the outside, I suppose, but in the process I wasn”t that aware of it. I got a doctorate in theoretical particle physics thirty years ago from the University of California, Berkeley. I was completely entranced by this unbelievable pursuit, the mathematics of it in particular were just so beautiful. But thirty years ago, there was no SSC or LHC, so it wasn”t a particularly good time to be in physics. At the same time, I was discovering art. I saw my interest in art as parallel to my interest in physics. Both are trying to represent the world, to understand it and our place in it in some deeper way.
TM: How did you get into film in particular as a medium?
ML: Well, in film in particular, I think I was attracted by the idea of a very technical medium being able to reveal some deep truths about characters, about stories, about human existence. I went from being a graduate student sitting alone in a room by myself with pencil and paper, not making a lot of money, to trying to write scripts, where I was again sitting alone in a room by myself with pencil and paper, not making a lot of money. I eventually began to get involved in post-production, in the editing, which to me almost felt like a theorist at the end of the process coming back now with experimental data and trying to synthesize things. At a certain point, I was suddenly doing much more film than physics.
TM: So how did the idea for Particle Fever come to you? What gave you the foresight to think that the LHC and the search for the Higgs might be fodder for a interesting documentary?
ML: Well, the actual original idea came from my partner, David Kaplan, who is a theorist at Johns Hopkins. He is an active particle physicist and is featured prominently in the film. In about 2006, he was seeing that this machine would soon turn on. He knew it could possibly be a unique moment in history. He started to try to raise some money and shoot a little bit, but he wasn”t really sure how to proceed. I actually was in the narrative world at the time. When I moved into filmmaking, I was completely in the narrative fiction world, not at all in the documentary world. I had been invited to pitch a script to a bunch of investors. They told me about this physicist who had an idea for a documentary but wasn”t a filmmaker. He wanted to film this experiment, but no one knew if it would work and no one knew if they would find anything. These investors thought it was a terrible idea; I thought it sounded like a great idea. I also saw an opportunity to combine my physics background and the narrative storytelling techniques that I had been developing over years in the film world.
So I contacted David Kaplan. I told him I was not interested in doing a typical science documentary that would just try to explain science, but that if he was interested in doing something that would really allow me to use storytelling techniques and character development to authentically show science and its process in a unique way, we could potentially work together. It turned out that was exactly what David wanted as well.
TM: So many science documentaries seem almost designed to bore any audience that isn”t 100% interested from the get-go. Instead of trying to draw in new viewers who may not already be initiated into the world, they immediately alienate people in any number of ways. Your film instead quite obviously went against that grain, borrowing, as you say, storytelling techniques usually seen in narrative fiction films. Watching a bunch of scientists sitting around waiting for data could potentially be so dry, but you make it absolutely compelling. Were you ever worried that you wouldn”t be to achieve that?
ML: Oh, sure! We knew we had the elements of a basic good story, but the story was also evolving as we were filming it. If everything had just worked after first beam, it would have been a very different story. I was thinking dramatically, and was wondering if I should make it more about competition between theorists and experimentalists or between the experiments or between the opposing theories. I was thinking about all sorts of things, but you just sort of have to wade in. We knew the characters would be interesting, but whether it would have that great dramatic arc that the story just naturally ended up having, we certainly didn”t know from the get-go.
In terms of boring people, what we always knew was that while we needed to explain some of the physics, we didn”t want it to disrupt the dramatic backbone. That was the most difficult aspect of making this film. We wanted to give the audience just enough, so that sort of subconsciously, just when they”re thinking they might need something or be somewhat lost, then we are there to explain it.
TM: David Kaplan was there with you from the beginning, but I”m curious how you chose the other characters to focus on. There were obviously thousands of people involved in these experiments, so how did you choose who you chose?
ML: On the theory side, I was guided by David. He didn”t insist that he be a character, and in some sense he was somewhat hesitant at first to even be on camera. David was friends with Nima [Arkani-Hamed] and Savas [Dimopoulos]. Savas was his mentor, and David always thought he would be an important person to have around when the results came. Nima was sort of the hot shot of his generation who had also studied with Savas. They became the natural core, but there were several other theorists I interviewed as well. On the experimentalist side, I wrote to Fabiola [Gianotti] at ATLAS and asked her for recommendations. She gave me a list of people. We also started with people from one of the other experiments at LHC as well, CMS, and so we filmed a number of them too. I started with a wide a palette, but there was a sort of self-selection. From a filmmaking perspective, we needed people at the center of the action, so we followed the characters that just sort of rose to the surface.
TM: There are two major opposing theories you focus on in the film: the first being supersymmetry and the other being the multiverse. Do you have a side of that debate that you think is more likely? Or a side that you prefer?
ML: It”s tricky. There are things that would be exciting about both. What I would prefer is just that we would have evidence for one or the other. Supersymmetry for me is beautiful. The theory is so astonishing. It is a completely new level of abstract thinking that would describe the world in such a deep way. It”s such a testament to human ingenuity. It could explain so many things: it could explain dark matter, for instance, and it could explain why gravity is such a weaker force than the other forces. So supersymmetry is very appealing. On the other hand, if we could somehow prove that there are other universes, that we”re part of a multiverse, that is pretty astonishing too. The important thing is to know though. The frustrating thing would be to not know. With the multiverse in particular, it is very difficult to know how we would ever actually prove that. So I wouldn”t be happy if we were left with nowhere to go. But any evidence that points us somewhere further, I would be excited about.
TM: One of the little asides you make in the film is on the SSC–the Superconducting Super Collider–which was the American counterpart to the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. It would have been bigger, better, and more powerful than the LHC if it hadn”t been defunded by the right wing in the 80s and 90s. What do you think America lost by letting the Republicans win that argument and allowing Europe to pass us on this front?
ML: What did America lose? They lost the leadership position in particle physics. I think that was a serious blow. It was a psychological blow to the physics community. They suffered for years. To know that you didn”t have the support of your country was shocking. Up until that point, the US was at the forefront. Before the LHC, the leading lab was Fermilab outside of Chicago. The SSC would have been two and a half times as powerful as the LHC, even back then. When it was cancelled, basically that was marking the death knell for experimental high energy particle physics in the US. Americans are, of course, participating in CERN and in the LHC, but shuttering the SSC represented a shocking display of shortsightedness in terms of what we value and it definitely changed the landscape of experimental physics.
TM: Talking about what we value, towards the end of the film there”s mention of Werner Herzog”s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams–which sort of allows you to connect the world of art and the world of science–and then you end with a great line by Savas: “The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.”
ML: I think it was important for me to end the film on something grander. I was always interested in the overlap of art and science, as we”ve discussed, but I was very weary about just imposing it on the film. That conversation at the end of the film was really a gift for me from Nima. Nima had seen Herzog”s film before me, and he started talking about it to me. I filmed him telling Savas about those caves. It was perfect, a great gift. It allowed me to point to this continuous line from the first people that ever thought to represent the world by a drawing, making symbols on a cave. Who thought of that? Who was the first to think I could make these symbols to represent something? And that line goes all the way up through to where we are now, which is much more complicated, but it is a continuation of that same desire. It”s what ultimately distinguishes us as humans.
Mark Levinson is a filmmaker. His documentary Particle Fever is out now.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Anthos Media
Design by Francesca Rimi
Film Still from Particle Fever, Photography Courtesy of Anthos Media