PARTICLE FEVER – Review by Jennifer Merin

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particle feverScientists are the super sleuths in Mark Levinson’s smartly entertaining thriller of a documentary that chronicles the quest for fundamental knowledge about the origins of the universe. Using the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest machine, they’re searching for the elusive Higgs boson, the world’s smallest subatomic particle. Even if you think science isn’t your thing, this fascinating film will spark your imagination. Particle Fever is contagious. Read on…

Gathered in Switzerland, at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), are a thousand of the world’s most brilliant physicists, about to fire up the Large Hadron Collider to initiate an experiment that has been in the planning and implementation stages since the mid-1980s.

In an as yet untried series of tests, they hope to bash subatomic particles — protons or neutrons — into each other at the speed of light, breaking them into heretofore unknown, unmeasured smaller particles, including and especially the postulated Higgs boson, an elusive entity named for Peter Ware Higgs, the Nobel laureate whose calculations set off this long-term search for a crucial piece of the magnificent puzzle we call the universe.

A Universal Primer

If that seems like too much physics for you to wrap tour mind around, fear not. You don’t have to be steeped in science to understand the drama of what’s happening in this film.

As the documentary introduces you to six of the dedicated scientists and engineers — personable brainiacs, all — who’ve spent decades developing and building the Large Hadron Collider, you will be drawn into their suspense and feel their excitement and anxiety, and you will begin to understand why this singular experiment is so important.

So important that it has taken decades to prepare for it. So important that thousands of scientists have been employed on the project, many of them having spent their entire careers on it and/or put their professional reputations on the line for it. So important that men and women from 100 countries — some of which are currently at war with each other — have left political rivalries and strife and philosophical differences behind in order to closely collaborate with each other in this extraordinary attempt to unravel universal mysteries.

History in The Making

The project began during the mid-1980s, and the physical building of the Large Hadron Collider took from 1998 to 2008. It is the largest machine every built by human beings, and contains a 17 mile long cylindrical particle accelerator that runs beams of subatomic particles into each other at the speed of light, and then monitors the debris as it passes by various sensors and observation stations where scientists can examine, measure and catalog the results of the collision.

How Do You Make A Movie About Invisible Particles?

Filmmaker Mark Levinson — who is both physicist and documentarian — is the perfect interpreter of all this science, and he captures the nuances of the drama and suspense that builds as events unfold.

Levinson’s six leading characters — half of them are theorists and the other half are experimenters — are extremely engaging, and together they present a comprehensive overview of the what the experiment involves and what it means.

Subatomic particles and particle behavior are not actually ‘visible’ to anything other than extremely sensitive sensors, so.Levinson uses exciting graphics — think Fourth of July fireworks — to illustrate what happens inside the collider.

He rounds out the story with a wise and comprehensive worldly context, telling how the U.S. government, deciding not to build a nuclear research center and collider, delivered this prestigious brain trust plus thousands of high level scientific and technical jobs to the European Union. He informs that the World Wide Web was invented so that scientists from around the globe could be kept up to date on the building of the Large Hadron Collider, and could challenge each other on theory and the math.

Levinson treats the Large Hadron Collider as a character, too — one that’s every bit as engaging as and even more impressive than a mechanical monster that squashes semi trucks and knocks down buildings. He takes us into an environment that is as different and mind-blowing as any space craft that soars through a narrative feature.

The Bottom Line:

What actually happens when the Large Hadron Collider is fired up? No spoilers here. See the movie to find out.

See the movie even if you already know the outcome of the experiment and know a lot about the science. It’s that good.

And remember this alert: Particle Fever is contagious.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).