NYFF Review: CERN LHC Doc 'Particle Fever' Inspires in Many Ways
by Alex Billington
September 30, 2013
I love being inspired. I genuinely love watching or hearing stories that inspire me, and inspire everyone else, to pursue their dreams and live their life in a way that continues to inspire others. Many people are familiar with the research facility near Geneva, Switzerland called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, run by CERN. This gigantic, 18-mile circle of tubes is filled with electromagnets that force the smallest particles in existence to smash into each other. A documentary called Particle Fever, showing at the New York Film Festival, tells the inside story of the LHC following a few of the theoretical/experimental physicists working on the project. It is utterly fascinating and inspiring on many levels. While not a perfect doc, I still loved it.
The field of experimental physics is one of the most advanced in all of science. Many of the big ideas and understandings common to high level physicists are incredibly complex and almost impossible for laymen to comprehend. Particle Fever attempts to distill these complex ideas down into a digestible form, one where nearly any/everyone can understand what they're doing and why without confusing things with big words or theories that don't make sense. The doc focuses on four specific people involved with the LHC - two women working on the project in Switzerland, and two very nerdy but funny physicists based in the United States.
The decision to follow the two women at CERN is one of the many inspiring aspects of Particle Fever. One of them is the project leader of ATLAS, one of the key research stations of the LHC, and is a very smart and talented leader. The other is a charismatic, cheerful postdoc physicist working on a specific part of ATLAS. Seeing these two women work diligently and happily while surrounded by so many other men was uplifting. Seeing how smart they are made me respect how important it is to support the notion that women are just as smart, and as capable, as the smartest men on the planet. Yet this isn't even the point of the doc. These two women are just there working in teams of geniuses making sure everything runs and the data comes in.
It's also inspiring to watch Particle Fever because it plays heavilyy on the angle of "we're watching history." The doc even alludes, a few times, to the notion that this is like documenting the first time Thomas Edison turned on the light bulb or Galileo showed off his latest discovery. The ways they explain the importance of the discoveries that the LHC is making are designed to inspire, not confuse. Instead of throwing out details or facts that would freak out casual moviegoers, they turn it into an enjoyable experience. The kind where you will want to stand up and cheer when they finally announce that they've discovered the Higgs particle (in July of 2012). I was constantly in awe watching this compelling inside story of history as it's happening.
The only gripes I have with the documentary are two technical issues. First, it has problems with the passage of time. At the beginning of the film, it starts out around 2008, which is right when the 20-year construction of the LHC was nearing completion and they were about to start their first "beam" test. From there it skips around in time with a couple of title cards, but not enough to give the audience a real idea of the progression of time (which is important). At one point it just skips ahead two years without explaining what happened. When a doc like this is telling the in-depth story of these people who have dedicated their entire life to this project, it's important to give the audience a sense of time passing for context. It gives us an idea of where things are, why, how, and where they're going, so that we have more of a narrative to latch onto and follow.
My other big issue was with the ending. For all that we see, all the stories we follow, all the inspiration and nerdy physicist rockstars, it ends rather abruptly. But that's because the experiment isn't over. It will take CERN another year or two to ramp up the LHC to full power and continue running complex experiments. They mention this, briefly, at one point near the end of the film but it doesn't end with any title cards, no additional text, no explanation, nothing to indicate that "this isn't over" and "there's more to come." At the end of the credits they do link to the film's website, but that's about it. I felt as if it really needed something else at the end to emphasize that this is only the start, and that all of the stories are only in their beginning.
Thankfully, the documentary is entertaining enough and consistently inspiring that I can overlook some of its technical issues and still end up engulfed with unadulterated fascination. I'm so glad I took the time to catch this documentary and I really hope others can be influenced by it after taking the time to see it. It's inspiring in the way it epitomizes the importance of research to understand our universe and why humanity exists, and it's inspiring in the way it shows that it takes is an open mind, ambition, dedication and passion to live your dreams and become a part of history. And it captures the beginning of a much bigger story that will mean even more years from now. It's a fully captivating doc worth experiencing for many great reasons.
Alex's NYFF 2013 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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