Stakes come no higher than in Particle Fever, a dazzling, dizzying documentary about nothing less than whether we exist in a coherent universe of ordered, even beautiful laws — or whether, as Princeton physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed theorizes, our universe is one of an infinite set of other universes defined by a chaotic mash-up of unstable, inexplicable, random conditions. (The final verdict, unsurprisingly: still out!)
The film follows the first proton-smashing experiments conducted in Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider; through compelling interviews with physics theorists and experimentalists, and effervescent science animation from MK12, director Mark Levinson — himself the holder of a doctorate in theoretical particle physics — makes the search for the elusive Higgs boson both thrilling and relatively clear.
The LHC has the look of a Bond villain’s lair, but it’s the physicists themselves who, like the Higgs, hold everything together, drawing momentous, persuasive connections between their work and the greatest leaps in human history, from cave-painting to Einstein. (The only un-grand thing in the movie: the American politicians who, in ’92, killed the chances of the collider being built in the U.S.)
Especially engaging is eager-beaver post-doc Monica Dunford, a marathon-running American who makes cutting-edge research work look like the best job that there is, especially as she slaps on a hard hat to perform repairs on the world’s biggest, most complex machine.
Levinson follows the ups and downs of bringing that beast of a collider online, but the movie’s deepest thrill lies in what these men and women will theorize next, and how they will test it. Please, bring your daughters.