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Particle Fever: Unexpectedly gripping doc about physics is both mind-bending and deeply human

Installing the ATLAS calorimeter within the CERN Large Hadron Collider.

PF Productions/Courtesy of CERN

4 out of 4 stars

Directed by
Mark Levinson

Somewhere near the two-thirds mark of Particle Fever, an unexpectedly gripping story of the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, you may well find yourself sweating along with the half-dozen physicists featured here, as they wait to learn the mass of the Higgs particle they have dislodged from smashing protons together.

What's at stake is – well, pretty much everything. A lower number implies a universe of "beauty and simplicity and order and deeper and deeper insights." The higher mass implies a "multiverse" of chaos, where we are a minuscule part of an existence that is "mostly lethal." No spoilers, but the results surprise even the scientists.

Made by physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson and physicist/producer David Kaplan, who appears as our onscreen teaching guide, the film extends over four years from the startup of the collider in 2008 to the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, a.k.a. the glue of the universe, or the "God particle."

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Set in crummy offices and towering facilities worthy of a Bond movie, the documentary is edited with the momentum of a thriller by the great Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), as we follow six scientists. They come across as simultaneously passionate thinkers and endearing nerds: There's the elegant Italian physicist and classical pianist Fabiola Gianotti, obliviously stepping into traffic while talking excitedly on her phone. Or postdoc student and experimental physicist Monica Dunford, declaring effusively: "It's unbelievably fantastic how great data is."

Their excitement is infectious and the entire endeavour both mind-bending and tremendously human: Near the end, Peter Higgs, the recent Nobel Prize-winner and one of the scientists who first predicted the particle back in 1964, is seen in Switzerland watching the data results come in, while a tear trickles down his cheek.

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