It was the biggest experiment in the history of physics, a $10-billion project to find a subatomic particle called the Higgs boson.
An army of scientists and engineers spent nearly 30 years designing and building the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile underground track near Geneva where protons would accelerate to nearly the speed of light and collide in a shower of subatomic particles. If the Higgs turned out to be one of them, it would validate the so-called Standard Model of particle physics and help scientists understand why there was mass in the universe.
In the months before the collider switched on in 2008, a pair of physicists set out to document the excitement, anxiety and intellectual fervor at the machine’s home at at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The result is “Particle Fever,” a surprisingly emotional film that takes viewers deep behind the scenes of a landmark achievement in science. Spoiler alert: The Higgs boson was found, and its discovery was recognized in 2013 with a Nobel Prize.
David Kaplan, a theoretical particle physicist at Johns Hopkins University, came up with the idea for the documentary. Mark Levinson, who earned a doctorate in theoretical physics at UC Berkeley before pursuing a career in film, signed on as director. “Particle Fever” is now playing in theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Kaplan and Levinson discussed the movie during a recent visit to The Times.
What made you think the search for the Higgs boson would make an entertaining movie?
David Kaplan: I knew that when the Large Hadron Collider turned on, it was going to change us in some very dramatic way. Most of us felt very confident we would discover the Higgs. But an entire generation of physicists had not seen any information about the theories we’d all been working on. We knew it could be a total erasure of all of our work.
I bought a camera and started filming in January 2007.
What was the most difficult concept to convey?
DK: We didn’t explain the Higgs in any real thorough way. But people came out of the movie and said, “My God, that was the best explanation I’ve ever heard!” If you go back, no it wasn’t. We tricked people into thinking they understood a lot more than they did because they digested it in an emotional context.
Mark Levinson: To me, it’s not a question of what was the hardest thing to explain. The hardest thing was deciding what we’re not going to explain.
DK: What to leave out.
What did you leave out?
ML: We left out string theory. That was a hard decision.
DK: For one of us.
How difficult was it to get people to talk to you and let you be there for the big moments?
DK: It was very easy.
ML: They couldn’t see how it could ever be a story. They only had two requests: “Please don’t make us look boring,” and “Can you introduce us to Nicole Kidman?”
DK: One out of two ain’t bad.
But a lot of people had a lot to lose, depending on how the experiments turned out and the mass the Higgs was found to have.
DK: It’s very hard to look for something when you don’t know what you’re looking for. You have to believe it to see it. And you need to make sure there’s more than one thing that people believe so that they can look for all kinds of different things.
It sounds like being a cancer researcher -- you can spend your whole life developing drugs in the lab, and none of them work in clinical trials.
There’s a poignant scene in the movie where a theorist worries that 40 years of his life have been wasted. How did you get that on film?
ML: He and a colleague got caught up in talking about physics. Then it sort of drifted into this other thing.
For us, technically it was a disaster -- they were standing right in front of the lighting. But nobody talks about the fact that the scene doesn’t look the best because it’s so emotionally engaging. It was remarkable that he was so open like that.
Has his whole life’s work become irrelevant?
DK: We won’t know for a long time.
ML: Hopefully beyond his death.
DK: He’s actually decided not to retire all the way. He had a big retirement party last December, and then he announced that he’s going to keep on working.
David, after the big press conference announcing the discovery of the Higgs boson, you said most of your theories were wrong, but you didn’t seem that upset. Why not?
DK: It was like housecleaning. You know the particle was going to come out at some mass, and no matter what mass it came out, some stuff would be thrown away.
It really was a happy moment. Maybe if I were at the end of my career, the feeling that I still don’t know what’s happening would be frustrating.
In the early part of the movie, you remind viewers that the U.S. Department of Energy was building a much bigger particle accelerator in Texas, the Superconducting Super Collider. That project was shut down in 1993 after $2 billion had been spent. Were you trying to persuade audiences that the cancellation was a mistake?
DK: We’re making the case in a way that it doesn’t typically get made. It wasn’t the purpose of the movie though.
I think in the U.S., physicists -- especially particle physicists -- suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the cancellation of the super collider. We’re constantly trying to figure out how we justify what we do by talking about spinoff technologies and incremental stuff.
It’s a mistake. We have to be honest. We are at a far end of a distribution. On one end, it’s stuff you’re improving day to day. In the middle there are things that may have practical uses in five or 10 years, and on the other end, you can’t imagine how it’s going to be useful.
I cannot tell you what particle physics is useful for, other than it is the frontier of knowledge of the physical world. If you remove that completely, the guys next to us suffer too, because it is a continuous distribution. You lose people who are thinking about condensed matter physics, some of which is very esoteric, but some of it contributes to high-temperature superconductivity. That may be the way energy is transported in the future.
How has the movie been received among physicists?
DK: The ones who’ve told us said they love it.
ML: I screened it at CERN a month or so ago, and they were really blown away. The first reaction from [CERN experimental physicist] Martin Aleksa was, “When are you going to get the German translation, because this is going to explain to my grandmother what I do.”
Will there be another film coming?
DK: We’re not planning anything like what we just did. But I would certainly like to see science recorded much more effectively now, and I think that’s possible.
One crazy idea for a project is to have every single person who does data analysis record themselves on their smartphone as they work on their research. All of those videos would go into a big database. If a discovery is made, then you can follow the trail backward and see those hints where it happened.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.