Grappling with the Matter at Hand: Mark Levinson's Particle Fever Follows the Search for Higgs boson
Mark Levinson’s latest documentary, Particle Fever, explores the communal effort, curiosity, and imagination that drive the search for the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” that could potentially pave the way for “new” or post-Standard Model physics.
By Pamela Segura
Why are we curious about the nature of our universe? What are the different scientific, philosophic, and artistic layers involved in that curiosity? Levinson’s brilliant 2014 documentary, Particle Fever, examines these questions on multiple levels, meditating on the experiences of scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva.
The documentary bounces between close-ups of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, at CERN and sweeping shots of the Geneva landscape. The two views—highly nuanced and narrow shots mixed with sprawling, spacious countryside—express Levinson’s message, both as a particle physicist and documentarian. Discovering the Higgs boson is about us all and, more profoundly, how we feel about the world and ourselves when we look at the sky.
As such, the matters that the scientists in Particle Fever grapple with are no easy feat. The discovery of the Higgs boson, after all, could further corroborate the Standard Model of particle physics and ease our path to understanding the nature of the universe.
The Standard Model explains that all enveloping matter is made up of particles, which are classified as either quarks or leptons. Forces that shape everything around us, moreover, result from exchanges between specific force-carrier particles. These four forces include the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force.
This model began taking shape in 1961, when Noble Prize-winning Sheldon Lee Glashow combined electromagnetic and weak interactions. By 1964, three groups developed the model for the “Higgs mechanism,” which explains certain properties of mass. The actual Higgs boson particle derives its name from Peter Higgs, one of the members of the team
The Standard Model provides us access to the subatomic world that surrounds us. Yet, it does not fully incorporate gravitational forces. It also leaves room for questions about dark matter and antimatter. Levinson’s documentary, in turn, conceptualizes these ideas for all viewers—not just those who are inclined to particle or theoretical physics. He simplifies the two schools of thought connected to the Higgs boson and theories on the universe. Supersymmetry, or “SUSY,” suggests that our universe is highly ordered and that this order is an effect of countless causes that stretch back to the Big Bang Theory. The existence of multiple universes, on the other hand, throws this order into chaos, rendering our universe as one of many universes that came to be arbitrarily.
These binaries have obvious implications in the other contexts we use to engage with the world and existence, particularly philosophy and religion. The Higgs boson signifies not only the scientific, but also the emotional and spiritual. Levinson thus zeroes in on the scientists and their wrought and personal connection to the search for the Higgs boson in Particle Fever. He also aestheticizes the experience, inserting modernist music and formalist shots to both dramatize and challenge the sensationalism behind the Higgs boson particle’s other name, the “God particle.”
The CERN researchers include Fabiola Gianotti, who studied classical piano before receiving her doctorate degree in particle physics from the University of Milan in 1989. She’s a small, dynamic woman who zips past the screen with purpose and precision. Monica Dunford hails from University of Chicago; she finds herself in Geneva taking advantage of both her prestigious Enrico Fermi Fellowship and the natural space to run and bike through. David Kaplan, who teaches theoretical particle physics at Johns Hopkins University, acts as both producer and narrator in Particle Fever, guiding the viewer through the complexes of the Higgs boson project.
Levinson eventually builds enough suspense to render the spectator in awe at the climax of the film, in which Gianotti and her colleagues present what we now already know: the assumed Higgs boson discovered at CERN is neither super-light nor super-heavy.
This particle hovers somewhere in between, allowing us to shed light on layers of mystery while also uncovering new thresholds. Levinson’s Particle Fever is, thankfully, one universalizing piece of those many layers. Many questions still linger, but one thing is clear: this search for the Higgs boson is a collective endeavor, regardless of our distinctive, individualizing contexts.