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Particle Fever

March 21, 2014
Particle Fever

Science journalism and documentaries have four basic kinds of audience. At the very top are the subject-matter experts, and it’s usually just technical and academic journal articles aimed at them. Below that are those of us with a strong background in math and related scientific fields that could follow most of the technical ideas given a sufficiently detailed explanation. Then there is the generally interested lay audience of science fans who know some of the lingo but still need some metaphorical crutch to get the gist of what the scientists are talking about. Lastly, there are the masses who aren’t already interested in science, and may not really have any idea what it’s all about.

When I first heard of Particle Fever I knew it couldn’t be terribly technical. But with the benefit of some distance from the first wave of results spilling out of the Large Hadron Collider, I was hoping we could get a good, long-form explanation of the current state of experimental high-energy particle physics, maybe with some whiz-bang animations to help get the ideas across to the interested lay audience, and even some more technical details for people like me. With the backing of Johns Hopkins’ David Kaplan and directed by former physicist Mark Levinson, it certainly had the right pedigree.

Instead of that, I’m sorry to say, they low-balled it. The film is barely about particle physics at all, but is rather intended to give the idea of what it’s like to be a scientist, particularly at breakthrough moments like first light at the LHC, or at the discovery of the long-predicted Higgs boson.

I admit, it’s fairly effective at this, and to a scientifically-disinterested audience it does a good job in humanizing the image of scientists. One ATLAS postdoctoral researcher we check in with frequently is almost always interviewed with her athletic trophies from running, rowing, and who knows what else in view. One of the spokespeople mentions plays the piano, and notes that she entered university wanting nothing to do with mathematics or physics. A leading researcher is shown twice in his home, eating dinner with his wife and children. If you think scientists are dry, boring, geeky sorts in lab coats and taped-together glasses, this movie should dispel that notion, at least.

But it’s hard to imagine to whom the filmmakers think they’re speaking. I watched the film in a theater packed with representatives from the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other such bodies — people I would imagine have come into contact with their share of scientists before. My Twitter feed is filled with people who are at least generally interested in science. They don’t need a movie to see how real scientists get excited; they just had to turn on their computers last Monday after the BICEP project announced that it had detected primordial gravitational waves and watch the tweets stream past.

And I admit that the NSF and AAAS audience seemed very happy, and I’m sure many of the generally-interested science cheerleaders will be very happy, but this is just the happiness of the echo chamber. The film does “mak[e] theoretical arguments seem comprehensible”, but only to the extent that it makes them vague and nearly content-free. The only ones who really stand to learn something from this movie are those who don’t really know who scientists are and what they do, and those are the least likely to plunk down the price of of a movie ticket on it. I expect it’ll go over like gangbusters in high school science classes when substitute teachers need something to fill up time, though.

Particle Fever comes from a good place, and it means well, but if you already know that scientists don’t all match some boring stereotype there’s really nothing to see here. If you’re interested in the Large Hadron Collider, particle physics, and what we can understand about how the universe works on the most basic levels, this is not the documentary for you.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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