On July 4th, 2012, the particle physics laboratory CERN announced the news. After more than 20 years of research and preparation, they'd finally found the Higgs boson, or a particle that looked an awful lot like it. It was touted as the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle of modern particle physics, justifying decades of theory and billions of dollars in experiments. The 17-mile, $4.4 billion Large Hadron Collider had proved its worth.
At the same time and in the same place, there was a slightly more modest project taking shape. Physicist David Kaplan was getting it all on camera, with the goal of creating a documentary on the historic discovery. Years later that project is finally making it to the screen. Titled Particle Fever, the documentary looks at the excitements and fears of scientists involved in the project, as theoretical and experimental physicists came together to attempt to prove out theories that had already dominated the field for a decade.
"Me and my colleagues were up late obsessing over what might happen when the machine turns on," Kaplan says. "Could our entire strategy for physics and everything we're doing just be wrong? Could our entire careers be useless?" For the theoretical wing of physics, it was time to put up or shut up. If they were wrong, it would mean a billion-dollar particle accelerator had been built on a bad bet.
Of course, by now we know they were right — but the film follows its subjects through a time when the payoff from the Large Hadron Collider wasn't so clear. Tracking the scientists from the collider launch onward, you can see them growing more confident with each test. After the first energy beam successfully circulates through the collider ring, the joy is tangible. "It worked. It just worked. And there are so few times in life when it just works," gushes physicist Monica Dunford. "We rocked! The first beam? We destroyed that shit." In a later scene, scientists gush over the LHC's appearance as a Google Doodle. "If you're in Google," one gushes, "that means for the world, it was the most important thing today."
The team also spends ample time fending off external doubts, as everyone from US senators to Italian tabloids question the practical uses of the LHC. But this being a movie made by physicists, the scientists end up with the last word. And after the final discovery, there's little doubt about whether the experiment was worth it. We found the God Particle! What's not to like? As director Mark Levison puts it, "if people don't come out of this film thinking physics is cool, then something is wrong."
Particle Fever premieres in New York on March 5th and Los Angeles on March 6th, and will expand to other cities in the following weeks.