Movie review

Film tracks biggest experiment ever

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Until recently, everything I knew about the so-called "God particle," the Large Hadron Collider and CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, came from "Angels & Demons," the novel and 2009 movie starring Tom Hanks.

In other words, more fiction than fact. In even plainer words, not much.

I don't remember taking physics in high school. If I did, anything I learned was squeezed out of my brain by having to memorize the five factions from "Divergent" or the real names of superheroes like Captain America or Spider-Man.

'Particle Fever'

Rating: PG-13 in nature for language and challenging material. 

Along comes the documentary "Particle Fever," which is the sort of movie the boys on "The Big Bang Theory" would be dying to see. I feel about the subject matter the way one brainy physicist describes the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that plays a crucial role in the fabric of the universe: It's "weird and we do not understand it."

"Particle Fever," which tracks events over roughly five years, follows scientists as they try to re-create conditions just after the Big Bang and to find the Higgs boson, possibly explaining the origin of all matter.

Director Mark Levinson and producer David Kaplan, perhaps mindful that not all moviegoers can relate to a $10 billion collider and project uniting 10,000 scientists from 100 countries, tell their story through a half-dozen scientists. Some are young, some closer to middle age and some (let's hear it for equality) women.

Monica Dunford, an American post-doc student describing the atmosphere in Switzerland the week before the first key experiment, speaks in terms even the regular folks can understand.

"The entire control room is like a group of 6-year-olds whose birthday is next week. And there's gonna be cake and there's gonna be presents and all their friends are gonna be there and they just know it's gonna be great."

And it was, initially, but complications ensued and some physicists feared the initial celebration was premature. "Particle Fever" tracks the suspense, doubt and even the doomsday theories -- fringe scientists initially feared a black hole would be created and swallow the Earth -- around the biggest, most expensive experiment ever.

Challenged by an economist about the financial gain of the LHC experiment, a theoretical particle physics professor says it "could be nothing, other than just understanding everything."

"Particle Fever," edited by three-time Oscar winner Walter Murch, balances the hieroglyphics on the blackboards with majestic music and shots of the collider as if it were a rocket about to explode into the heavens. The science may elude or mystify you but not the philosophy periodically dished up as experts talk about supersymmetry vs. the multiverse.

Physicist Savas Dimopoulos, a Greek immigrant who holds an endowed chair at Stanford University, says, "Jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the big secret to success." Feel free to quote that at your next corporate review and name drop the Higgs boson, too.

Opens Friday at the Regent Square Theater. Screenings Friday and Saturday and April 18-19 will be followed by discussions with particle physicists from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

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