For most people, “the big picture” doesn’t stretch much beyond their own existence and its impact on the world immediately around it. For particle physicists, it extends in ways that are both vast and incredibly difficult for non-scientists to understand, and therein lies the challenge of Particle Fever, a documentary that seeks to distill an un-distillable subject into something at least partially understandable for those without decades of schooling under their belts. The film mostly rises to that challenge by humanizing the field, and by focusing on one specific angle—proof of the so-called “God particle.”
Everything in the world of particle physics seems to hang on the high-stakes Higgs particle, which was theorized in the mid-’60s but made news in 2008, with the completion of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Mainstream society took interest in the machine—the largest ever assembled, by thousands of intrepid scientists—for two reasons: because the Higgs has been dubbed “the God particle” (a name most physicists apparently hate), and because crackpots theorized that causing the kind of particle collisions necessary to prove its existence could open a black hole that would swallow the Earth.
After years and years of meticulous planning and building—from both the big-dreaming theoretical physicists and their more down-to-earth counterparts, the experimental physicists—the Collider came online in 2008. To understand what an extraordinary achievement the construction of this massive thing was, imagine the inside of a computer blown up to five stories, complete with a 17-mile circular underground track. What’s harder to convey, and Particle Fever does its best to do so, is the real-world importance of the Higgs particle itself. Scientists know it will inform their field forever—or, if it doesn’t exist, disprove everything they know. The mass of the Higgs is what it all comes down to. If it’s heavier, that suggests the existence of a chaotic “multiverse,” exploding the field of physics. If it’s lighter, it suggests that theories of orderly “supersymmetry” are more likely.
How does this affect the price of eggs or the morning commute? Not at all, at least in the short term. But by personalizing this monumental discovery with the stories of the physicists working on it, the documentary allows for some transferred excitement. Whether focusing on the young, wild-eyed theoretical genius or two older gentlemen who’ve literally spent their entire adult lives considering what they now may be able to prove, the film succeeds in expressing the significance of what’s happening, if not the practical applications. And that’s better than fine, really: It’s a delight to watch clearly brilliant people work on a project that they put so much stock in. Particle Fever, to its great credit, is very rarely dry. There’s a palpable excitement throughout, even as the work moves slowly, and the physicists themselves are charming and straightforward enough (“We won’t know how, but it’s gonna change everything”) to make it a compelling, if sometimes difficult to follow, story.