Documentary - Particle Fever

Particle Fever

Susan Omand takes on science, CERN and Switzerland in her review of the documentary Particle Fever...

Switzerland. Calm countryside, mountains, farmland... also the home of CERN and the wonder that is the Large Hadron Collider. We follow six scientists, including particle physicist David Kaplan, during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, marking the start-up in 2008 of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet. The purpose of the Large Hadron Collider was to attempt to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang and try to explain the origins of ...well... everything.

The co-operation between theoretical physicists (who try to construct the mathematical theories to explain everything found in nature based on what has been proven before) and experimental physicists (who use the theories to run the machines, analyse the data and try to discover the things like new particles) was key in putting this whole experiment together to give it the best chance of success. The experiment itself was designed in the mid 1980’s and took 10,000 people, many of whom worked for warring countries such as Iran and Syria, and nearly 20 years to construct the 17 mile round structure that the particle beams were to be shot round in opposite directions in order to cause the required collision – the mini Big Bang. The World Wide Web came about through CERN so that the data from this one experiment could be shared across countries. This was a monumental project. And it wasn’t the only one. America was trying a similar experiment, only for it to get cancelled by Congress in 1993 as being a waste of resources. So it was up to CERN to make it work, to try to PROVE the theories of scientists like Savas Dimopoulos, so fanatical a physics problem solver that, if he works on a paper that could win a Nobel prize, doesn’t allow more than three other people to work on the paper because you can’t share the prize amongst more. But what if the experiment didn’t work? What if it worked but they didn’t find anything? What if they did??

This was a fascinating insight into the history and future of particle physics and the theory behind and inception of the Large Hadron Collider experiment actually as it happened. I love science in all its forms and, listening to the enthusiasm of Kaplan and the others, the excitement of whom was described in the film as “a bunch of six year olds whose birthday is next week”, it’s easy to get caught up in the Particle Fever of the title. They did not know what they would know by the end of the experiment, if they knew anything new at all. This whole voyage of discovery was the molecular equivalent to Columbus sailing out over the Atlantic hoping to reach India but not knowing if he would fall off the edge of the world instead. Just imagine putting so much time, effort and money into something so risky, that may not even exist, in the hopes of finding something, anything to justify it. The entire field of study depended on the results of this one experiment and, as Kaplan says at the start of the documentary, “It’s either going to be a golden era or quite stark.”

Welcome to the front line of the golden era of science.

Image - IMDb.