In search of The God Particle!
Why the obsession with finding the *GOD Particle*, what is the true purpose of programs like CERN ? The answer may be stranger than fiction.
Cern Atlas XXperiment in search of The God Particle
Cernunnos was the green horned god of the celtic underworld.
A description of “Particle Fever” — Mark Levinson’s mind-blowing new documentary — must grapple with some issues of scale. This is a modest, compact movie about the largest imaginable subject: the structure of the cosmos.
It tells the story of an enormous project, involving decades of labor, hundreds of millions of dollars and miles of Swiss real estate, devoted to finding something almost immeasurably small: the Higgs boson, a subatomic morsel believed by physicists to hold the key to understanding the universe. (It’s sometimes called “the God particle.”) The experience of watching the film can be vertiginous: You toggle between the tiny and the infinite, between eternity and the real time of the recent past.
The Higgs particle is named for Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who first posited its existence in 1964. (He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics last year.) It has a central role in what physicists call the Standard Model, a comprehensive account of, well, just about everything.
The search for the particle itself led to the construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN — also called the European Organization for Nuclear Research — near Geneva, where much of the action in “Particle Fever” takes place, in the years leading up to a 2012 breakthrough. At CERN, practical science outstrips the dreams of science fiction as a machine shoots beams of particles around a long track. The hope is that their collisions will provide data indicating the presence of the Higgs.
The experimental physicists deployed on the Hadron work in the service of ideas formulated by their theorist brethren (shown in their Princeton and Palo Alto habitats, walking in the woods or writing on whiteboards). There are hints of collegial rivalry between the groups, and of competition among the theorists. Much of the background is explained by David E. Kaplan, a Johns Hopkins physicist who is a producer of the film. Mr. Kaplan helped commission Mr. Levinson (and also Walter Murch, the visionary editor of “Apocalypse Now” and “The English Patient”) to translate science into cinema, and he proves an able and amiable guide.
The physics that Mr. Kaplan and his colleagues practice is forbiddingly complex, comprehensible to most of the people in the film and to very few outside it. But his impromptu lectures and some nicely animated graphics make the basic issues reasonably clear, and delightfully dramatic. While the discovery of the Higgs may not have immediate consequences for the way we live, or applications in the world of technology and industry, its implications, according to “Particle Fever,” could hardly be more profound. Through most of the film, the scientists are awaiting a specific bit of data, a single number that will either vindicate a theory of the universe known as supersymmetry or suggest the possibility of multiple universes.
The differences between these two outcomes seem very stark. In the first case, more particles are likely to be found, contributing to a detailed and orderly picture of the nature of things. In the second, the Standard Model will be thrown into chaos, and the stability of the universe itself may be called into question. It won’t be the end of the world, but for some theorists, it will feel that way.
Mr. Kaplan is hoping for supersymmetry. His friend and sometime table tennis partner, Nima Arkani-Hamed of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is in the multiverse camp.
“Particle Fever” is a fascinating movie about science, and an exciting, revealing and sometimes poignant movie about scientists. The Large Hadron Collider, after all, is a human endeavor, and the people who have devoted their lives to chasing the Higgs are a compelling and diverse collection of characters.
Fabiola Gianotti, trained as a classical pianist, oversees one of the Hadron’s main experiments with a manner at once businesslike and artistic. Martin Aleksa is the father of two young children who are happily unimpressed with their father’s work. Monica Dunford, an American postdoctoral fellow who runs and bicycles through the hills around CERN in all weather, demolishes the categories of nerd and jock. She’s both and neither. (The prominence of women in this movie also quietly challenges the male domination of science, both in the popular imagination and, too often, in real life.)
The film is a tribute to the creativity and curiosity that drive scientific research, which is shown to be an imaginative as well as an empirical pursuit. It is enormously suspenseful, too, chronicling a period that included nearly catastrophic setbacks and public relations disasters, as well as progress. There was always a risk that the machinery would not work, that the beams would not collide properly, and that the Higgs would continue to hide at the theoretical center of the universe without empirical confirmation.
Even if you recall (or Google) newspaper articles from the summer of 2012, when CERN made headlines, you may still hold your breath at the climax of “Particle Fever.” What will the magic number be? Are we living in a supersymmetrical universe or a chaotic multiverse? I won’t spoil anything, but I can hardly wait for the sequel.
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