Yesterday I got a chance to see Particle Fever, the long-awaited film about particle physics. It’s at the New York Film Festival, where there will be another showing on Wednesday, although tickets are already sold out. Oliver Peters was also there, and has a detailed review.
My own reaction to the film was kind of schizophrenic: most of it I thought was fantastically good and I really hope it finds distribution and gets widely seen. On the other hand, some of it I thought was a really bad idea. First though, the really great aspects of the film.
The main structure of the film is built around the discovery of the Higgs at the LHC, starting at a point back around 2006 or so. Theorist David Kaplan is the person most responsible for the idea of the film and getting it made, and there’s footage of him visiting the LHC while ATLAS is being installed, getting shown around by Fabiola Gianotti, who later was to become ATLAS spokesperson. This part of the film shows very well the scale of the effort represented by the LHC and its detectors, as well as giving some idea of the physical environment experimentalists work in (both the huge experimental halls and the areas around them, as well as control rooms and crummy office spaces). There’s good use of high quality graphics to give some basic insight into what is going on. Interviews with a few ATLAS physicists add a human face to the story and explain the motivation that drives people to do this kind of work.
The cameras were also there for first beam back in 2008, as well as to capture people’s reaction to the depressing news of the accident a few days later that set the whole project back by a year. There’s wonderful footage of the scene late in 2009 when first collisions finally occurred, with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy providing a very appropriate soundtrack. I especially liked the scenes of a young postdoc (Monica Dunford) carrying her laptop around, elated to show everyone plots with data from the first collisions.
The last part of the film is dominated by the July 4, 2012 discovery announcement, doing a wonderful job of showing the media frenzy as well as the joy and excitement of the entire HEP physics community at that time. All in all, if you want to get someone turned on to high energy particle physics, or just convince a young person that a career in science is an attractive idea, the CERN footage in this film should do the job better than anything I’ve seen from even the highly competent CERN press office.
Theorists provide a parallel track throughout the film, with focus on Kaplan,
his advisor Savas Dimopoulos, and Nima Arkani-Hamed. All of them are highly eloquent on the topic of the significance of fundamental HEP physics research. It is made clear that the fact that the LHC is not seeing SUSY or other new particles is a big problem for theorists like these who have devoted their careers to models of new physics that was supposed to show up at the LHC. In one scene Dimopoulos and Riccardo Barbieri are discussing the matter, with Barbieri saying he has wasted 40 years working on such things, and will soon be retiring. Dimopoulos says that in his case it’s just 30 years, but insists there is still two years to go (until the full-energy LHC) before really giving up. The relation of all this to the Higgs is not made clear.
As for the really bad idea, it’s the introduction of the multiverse into the theory part of the film. Kaplan is shown claiming that the multiverse predicts a 140 GeV Higgs, based on this paper of Yasunori Nomura and Lawrence Hall (who was Arkani-Hamed’s advisor). This is at a time when there were experimental hints of a 140 GeV Higgs. After they went away, and the mass came out at 125 GeV, the “prediction” is forgotten, but a long segment still has Arkani-Hamed going on about the CC and arguing for the multiverse. Just before this segment though, Dunford the experimentalist is shown Skyping with the filmmaker, warning them “Don’t listen to theorists”. At the film showing, Kaplan and Arkani-Hamed were there and answered questions at the end. One of the first questions (not from me…) was from an audience member who asked why they had put the material about the multiverse in the film, even though it had no real link to the Higgs or the LHC experiments. Arkani-Hamed admitted that the 140 Gev prediction was tenuous, there was no “sharp” link of the multiverse to the Higgs, and that no way is now known to get predictions out of the multiverse idea or test it. Kaplan explained that the intention was to make an “experiential” film, focusing on what theorists were talking about and thinking about, without getting into really trying to fully explain the scientific issues. The problem with this is that the film comes through as promoting the Dimopoulos/Arkani-Hamed view that no SUSY means a multiverse, without showing any challenge to such an argument.
In any case, it’s a beautifully done film, on a great topic. I hope it soon gets widely distributed, although perhaps with some sort of warning tag attached.