Making Sense of a Chaotic Universe in ‘Particle Fever’

William Eley

 

Peering into Richard Long’s State Oasis, a courtyard-sized art installation of granite and slate at Princeton University that hauntingly mimics the fragile landscape of a distant planet, Dr. Nima Arkani-Hamid, one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicist, winsomely declares to his friend and colleague Dr. David Kaplan that “there is something, philosophically, about this piece of art that bothers me... It’s trying to make order out of something where there isn’t any.”


Following suit, as it is assembled from nearly five-hundred hours of footage captured over seven years, Mark Levinson’s latest film Particle Fever embodies Dr. Arkani-Hamid’s ironic observation: capturing the undulating narrative between the construction of CERN’s Hadron Collider, the world’s largest machine, and the July 4th, 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, the so-called God Particle, that is theoretically responsible for the masses of all particles held within our universe. The optimistic pursuit of a sensible ordering of a universe we reluctantly feel to be in utter chaos.


Given that we, human beings, are composed of these very same particles, Dr. Kaplan will, in the film whose production he helmed, existentially contend, “If the Higgs goes, everything goes.”


Appropriately, and in accordance with the universe-sized endeavor of which Particle Fever documents, the film’s style is of a predictable, cinema verite formulation: enmeshing moments of planet-rattling scientific discovery with footage of its purveyors training for marathons along Swiss country roads, engaging in impromptu ping-pong matches under cruel, institutional lighting and, of course, confessing their concerns about the potential “end of Physics” via Skype. However, the film is not only just a clever melange of scientists working hard and hardly working, but serves as a stage for the interrogation of the very values that constitute and enliven human action, thought, and passion.

 

As the film traces the intellectual pursuits of Stanford University’s Savas Dimopoulos, whose 30 years of work stands to be strengthened or outrightly determined fruitless by the data mined from experiments surrounding the discovery of the Higgs boson, these deeper philosophical threads are made manifest.

Situated amidst a diffusion of images that draws analogies between the chalkboard jazz of a theoretical physicist’s classroom and the ancient renderings upon the walls of France’s Chauvet Cave, Dr. Dimopoulos asks, “Why do people do science? Why do we do art?”

Modestly, though poetically, he answers the question himself stating, “The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.”

So, in the end, Particle Fever, as its central thesis would suggest, leaves its viewers with more questions than answers, just as any sound science should. But given the quality of the film’s final expression, it would seem wise to think that not only will this film’s audiences leave theaters with more questions, but will leave engendered with better questions with which they may stage their own investigations into why and what this whole universe might be about.

 

Author Bio:

William Eley is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine and an M.A. candidate of Aesthetics and Politics at the California Institute of the Arts.

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