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Particle Fever: Filming the hunt for the Higgs boson

Two theoretical physicists make a film about the experiment of a lifetime.

Why do humans do science? Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.

—Savas Dimopoulos, in Particle Fever.

For physicists, the startup of the Large Hadron Collider meant that theories developed over decades would finally be tested. In anticipation, David Kaplan, a theorist at the Johns Hopkins University, decided that somebody needed to record the historic events. He ended up devoting the next seven years to Particle Fever, a 99-minute narrative documentary, which opens on 5 March at the Film Forum in New York City (see for a schedule of showings).

Mark Levinson, a New York City–based filmmaker whose credentials include a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and whose credits include The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain, heard about Kaplan's project and was keen to get involved. "The idea that this could be a dramatic, narrative film was very appealing to me," Levinson says. "We both felt we'd never seen a really accurate depiction of the scientific process. That was our goal. We also wanted to make a story that could be compelling." Kaplan has an even loftier goal: "I want to impart our culture, the culture of the physicist, onto the world, because it's actually very healthy."

Mark Levinson (left) and David Kaplan at a presentation of their film, Particle Fever. (Credit: Particle Fever)

Mark Levinson (left) and David Kaplan at a presentation of their film, Particle Fever. (Credit: Particle Fever)

Starting in 2007 and going through the exhilarating announcement of the discovery of the Higgs particle on 4 July 2012, the film follows Kaplan and a half dozen other physicists: experimentalists Martin Aleksa, Monica Dunford, Fabiola Gianotti, and Mike Lamont; and theorists Nima Arkani-Hamed and Savas Dimopoulos. About the Higgs mass, Dimopoulos says, "It turns out [it] is about as interesting as it could be. It's sort of in no-man's land. It doesn't prefer symmetries, and it doesn't prefer multiverses."

"We haven't seen other particles, so that has constrained a lot of the theories," says Kaplan. "I think it's jarring for a lot of people. It opens questions and adds a bit of insecurity" for theoretical-particle physicists, he says. "Things are shaking up right now in the field. People need to re-center, to figure out the deeper questions, what's really important, what direction will be most compelling."

In a series of phone calls, Physics Today's Toni Feder learned about the film and the filmmakers.

PT: Why did you want to make this film?

KAPLAN: I thought it is a great story. And I thought, people don't get the process of doing science. And I thought it could reach a much larger group of people if it was done as a story about people, as sort of an experiential thing, as opposed to teaching the public about high-level physics.

LEVINSON: I got my doctorate in theoretical particle physics [in 1983]. I had been in the feature film world for years, but I had always been interested in finding a way to combine these things. For me, the overlap between art and science was very interesting, but I had not yet found the right mechanism.

When I did start working on this film, what made it so familiar was that not much had changed. [Theoretical particle physicists] were still waiting. The standard model was there. Super symmetry was a new idea, but they were still waiting for experiments to tell them what was really going on.

PT: How did you transition from physics to filmmaking?

LEVINSON: I went from being a graduate student in theoretical physics, where I was sitting in a room by myself, with a pencil and paper, not getting paid much and trying to think about the world. And then I started writing a script, and I was sitting in a room by myself, with a pencil and paper, thinking of a different representation of the world, not getting paid much. And what struck me was that, in certain ways, both in process and approach, there was a similarity between frontier-level scientific research and art. In physics we are using the language of mathematics to explain the world. I felt I discovered that artists are also trying to create a representation of the world around them in film, or painting, or music.

I told my adviser that I was going to take a year off before I applied for a postdoc. He gave me the option to stay and still work on things. I taught a little bit, and I started to work on a script. Then I answered an ad for a production assistant intern for an independent film that was being shot in the Bay Area. It ended up being basically film school. It was a remarkable thing, because I went from soup to nuts—I went from pre-production through the whole post-production process. We did the film editing, the sound editing, and the mix.

PT: How did you choose the scientists that are featured in Particle Fever?

LEVINSON: On the theoretical side, David was a natural selection. He was very good at explaining things, he was respected, he was passionate, and he was very good on camera. Savas was someone on whom the experiment was going to have great impact. And Nima was the young genius.

On the experimentalist side, it was a bigger task. At the beginning, everybody is like, "Yeah, I'll be in a film." But the reality is not very glamorous. Some people dropped out. And I knew I wanted my experimentalists to be there when things happened. [The Atlas experiment] has maybe 3000 physicists, and maybe a couple hundred are at CERN; most of them are at institutions all over the world.

A lot of things happened that were serendipitous for the film: Fabiola became the spokesperson for Atlas. Monica was all over, but she was in the control room a lot. Martin became the run-control coordinator, which means he was responsible for all the data coming from the control room. Mike Lamont became a huge asset, and in a bit of serendipity, he became the head of beam operations.

KAPLAN: We interviewed and filmed a lot of people. Ultimately, it was what simplified the film, and what was the best footage we had. I do feel some chagrin about not covering [the CMS experiment] too. I am at Johns Hopkins, and we have an amazing CMS group here. They're fine with it, but I still feel bad. But for the larger public it doesn't matter.

PT: What did the film cost, and who paid for it?

KAPLAN: I think we have gotten maybe $800 000 in donations and about $1.2 million in investments. Most of it is from private donations, but eventually I did get large private foundations. And we won an award from the Sloan Foundation and a grant from NSF.

PT: And some of the funding was from former physicists, right?

KAPLAN: Yes. A few of our biggest investors are quants—a quant is a physicist who becomes a hedge fund person. They got their PhDs in physics and astrophysics in the 1980s. My coproducer found a book on quants. And she basically cold-called every quant she could find. After many months, one responded. Later there were more.

PT: Any interesting anecdotes about making the film?

KAPLAN: It was painful, I'll say that. In the beginning of the process, people were afraid to trust me in telling the story, because I didn't have experience in making movies. Over time it transformed, but it was a gut-wrenching process that I don't want to go through again in the near future.

LEVINSON: One thing that I think was unique, is that we gave our characters high-end consumer cameras, that we call blog cameras, so they could record themselves, almost like personal diaries. That allowed us to get some great, very candid reactions to what was happening. For example, days after the LHC started up, they had the accident. . . .

PT: . . . when a failure in a weld joining cables between magnets led to the release of a large amount of helium into the magnet assemblies with catastrophic results. . . .

LEVINSON: I was back in the US, so until I could fly back to CERN, the blog cameras ended up being a way that we could get immediate, intimate reactions. It ended up also being a way to talk about the physics—which was one of the biggest challenges of the film: How do we explain the things that need to be explained without stopping the narrative?

The accident becomes a dramatic turn [in the film] right at the beginning. It allows us to re-create the anticipation.

PT: What do you hope to achieve with the film?

KAPLAN: I want to change something about the cultural dynamic associated with science. I think the problem is, the way science is exposed to the public is as a bunch of scientists talking about something and explaining it to you. I wanted to do something completely different, which is to make the experience of doing science accessible to everyone—that people can be scientists for 90 minutes. I think that breaking that barrier is the most important thing to do in terms of impacting how society looks at science. They need to look inside. They need to see that it's part of the human endeavor. I want a cultural transformation.

PT: How do you realize that aim?

KAPLAN: The film should be shown at every high school. It's a potentially inspiring film. It is dramatic, exciting, and cool. And inadvertently, two of our stars are women. I am trying to create a curriculum around the film, so that it's something that can be purchased by a school.

PT: What's next for each of you?

LEVINSON: The big question for me is, do I work on another documentary? Or is it going to be a fiction film?

KAPLAN: I don't know what I want to do. I will take a sabbatical next year, and spend all of my time just exploring what other people are doing and deciding what I want to spend the next 5, 10 years on.

This semester I am teaching a high-level graduate course—on a topic I would like to learn more about. It's black holes, entropy, and the information paradox. Quantum gravity is one of the worlds that I'm thinking about.

PT: You don't have to commit to one topic, do you?

KAPLAN: No. But there is one place where your intellectual heart is, and that is where your big success happens. Everything else on the fringe is something nice to read about and to stay educated about.

The thing I choose, that will be the thing I dream about at night. It will envelop my everyday life, so it has to be something interesting enough to do that.

PT: On a related topic, you mentioned that getting back to research is scary. Can you elaborate?

KAPLAN: When you become a physicist, there is a lot of peer pressure to do physics all the time. The start of every conversation with a physicist is, "What are you working on? Come on, let's try to figure this out." And by writing a book, or making a movie, you are bucking that. So I did the filmmaking reluctantly.

And now I have to jump back in and get back up to speed. Being a graduate student is hard, you really feel like an idiot all the time. You are trying to drive yourself to understand these things, and keep feeling like you are hitting a wall. I'll have to remind myself constantly, yes, yes, that's how it's supposed to feel. So what's scary is, I am now an older person, am I going to be able to push myself hard enough to get all the way back in to operate at that level?

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Scitation: Particle Fever: Filming the hunt for the Higgs boson