One of the moments of most profound relief in my early life—right up there with learning that my number in the first draft lottery was high enough to rule out the possibility of conscription, let alone a trip to Vietnam—was the moment when my high school guidance counselor prevailed upon my parents to let me substitute Studio Art for Physics in my senior year of high school. Math (past Algebra) and science (especially Chemistry) were nightmares of endurance roughly on a par with routinely getting smacked in the head by a basketball during Phys Ed. Escape from such extended torment induced pure joy.
A few years later, in college, the ill-understood stew of Eastern philosophy and quantum physics that my friends sometimes immersed me in got me to feeling as if I had perhaps missed out on a path to True Understanding, The notion that swamis and scientists shared not only fundamental insights into the nature of the universe but perhaps some weird methodological kinship intrigued me enough to keep my ear attuned to the discoveries of particle physics that wafted in on radio waves from time to time. But lacking any real mathematical training, or even comprehension, I never exerted a joule of effort to become an adept in the subject.
Still, it seems impossible to live through the second half of the twentieth century without some osmosis occurring: atomic bombs and moon landings, Voyager and Rover, all have kept the advances of science and technology part of popular culture. Increasingly sophisticated theories of the nature of time, space, and matter developed through this time and were reported in books, television shows, and even full-length documentary films. Recently, we sat down of a Friday evening and watched one of the best made of the last category, Particle Fever.
The film, which is available from numerous streaming services (Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, etc.) but not as a DVD, is the story of experiments carried out at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European research organization located outside Geneva, Switzerland and birthplace of the technologies we now call the Word Wide Web. This may sound strange, but all the while I was watching ti, I kept being reminded of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. The two films share the conceit of watching an enormous adventure unfold through time: like Boyhood, Particle Fever was filmed over a lengthy span of years with a “cast” of both theoretical and experimental physicists who had only a notion of where the story would take them. But along the way, much is revealed.
In July 2012 media reports of the discovery of the “God particle” or the Higgs boson celebrated the achievements of the LHC and CERN as something that would unlock the deepest secrets of the universe. At least, that’s how I remember the news at the time. I had no appreciation for what that actually meant, but thanks to Particle Fever, I now have a better understanding of what it did and didn’t. I also understand that while “fever” might be thought to reflect the enthusiasm of the scientists themselves, it’s a much better description of the media frenzy.
So what did I learn in the course of 99 minutes? Well, I came to understand better the distinction between theoretical and experimental physics, and how one might be characterized as largely a matter of mathematics, and the other of engineering. I gained a rudimentary appreciation for the LHC itself, a 17-mile long circular tunnel in which subatomic particles can be whirled at speeds approaching that of light. Moving in opposite directions on parallel tracks, the particles, having attained high enough speeds, are shifted in their paths so that collisions take place a four points along the ring. Enormous machinery designed to carry out specific observations at each of these points captures the path of particles thrown off by the collisions, and from painstaking analysis of the data trapped by these experiments, inferences about the nature of, well, nature can be made.
I learned that contemporary physics is the work of a lifetime. Theoretical physicists can devise models of the universe based on extant experimental observations, but pushing those theories through the sieve of further experiment to determine which may be right depends on extraordinary feats of engineering and construction. The LHC took 20 years to bring to a point where the very first test of its functionality—spinning protons along that 17-mile ring—could take place. When that test happened in 2008, there was rejoicing around the world, and yet that test only suggested that an experiment designed to capture traces of the Higgs boson (and other unspecified particles) might one day be carried out. The moment of that success is recorded as a tiny, evanescent blip of light on a display screen, nothing more. And yet the film brilliantly conveys the immense achievement that tiny burst of light represented for modern science.
I learned that in the decades while the LHC was being constructed and experiments imagined, two competing schools of thought about the nature of the universe and, to an extent, the direction of research in physics had been developing. SuperSymmetry builds upon all the accomplishments of 20th century physics and takes as a deep, abiding principle the notion that continued investigation and experimentation can reveal ever more refined and sophisticated understandings of the rules that govern the universe. Theories of the multiverse point in an opposite direction by positing that a key concept known as the Cosmological Constant operates as defined only in the particular part of the cosmos we can observe, that its value may vary in other, unknown, universes that constitute the grander multiverse.
Supersymmetry or multiverse? This is the junction, the parting of ways, that the experiments at the LHC hoped to illuminate. A signpost toward the former would mean more work to be done; an indication of the latter’s accuracy would signal the end of physics as we know it, for the other universes of the multiverse are inherently unknowable. The search for the ultimate truth about nature would, by definition, have to cease.
Particle Fever lays all this out in an entertaining, suspenseful, and very human drama. A small group of perhaps half a dozen physicists, in America and in Switzerland, from the theoretical and experimental sides of the discipline, were enlisted to document their work over the course of five years and to explain these concepts to the film’s audience. The climax occurs first with the successful creation of the necessary collisions and ultimately with the announcement of the analysis of the data thus obtained several months later, on July 4, 2012.
Will new particles be discovered? Will proof of the existence of the Higgs boson, the God Particle, appear? In a way, those aren’t the critical questions.
In point of fact, the data seemed to “reveal” only one new particle, and that was the Higgs boson. But the real significance lay in measuring the mass of the Higgs boson. If it turns out that the particle had a mass of around 114 giga-electron volts (GeV), the theories of SuperSymmetry would receive critical experimental support. A mass of closer to 140 GeV would indicate that the theories of the multiverse were more likely to be true.
In the end, two of the four experimental stations reported independently-derived calculations of the mass of the Higgs boson equalling approximately 125 GeV. The crossroads was neatly bisected. And although the results pointed more strongly towards validation of the concepts of SuperSymmetry, the difference between the expected value of 114 and the experimental value of 125 means that those theoretical formulations of SuperSymmetry will need extensive revision. And then there will be new experimental designs required to test them.
In the end, I came away with a somewhat enhanced understanding of the methods of experimental physics and of the ways in which it slowly and painstakingly advances our understanding. I don’t feel terribly much smarter about theoretical physics itself, or its operations, or even why exploring the universe at the scale of the extremely small and the extremely large is the path most likely to provide explanations. But somehow, perhaps in a way as mysterious as the workings of the universe itself, I found watching Particle Fever to be a most satisfying experience. It may be trite to say that it is better to light one small candle, but I came away from the film basking in that glow.
The morning after watching Particle Fever I came across an article by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker (“Sight Unseen,” April 13, 2015) that seemed to sum it up far better than I ever could:
…from our tiny bulwark against the invisible, we have looked into what we cannot look at—inferred its existence, and, to a stunning extent, figured out how it works. It’s hard to know which is more astonishing: that the visible sliver of the universe should betray the unseen structure of the entirety, or that the human mind, by studying that sliver, could begin to reconstruct all the rest.