Aug 31, 2013

We closed out Friday at Telluride with Particle Fever, a new documentary about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The film's "plot" turns on the search for evidence of the Higgs boson, but in the course of telling this abstruse story it acquaints us with the physicists pursuing the data and makes their aspirations (and fustrations) remarkably involving. Watching this movie, even the layperson is inclined to take a side in the debates between experimental and theoretical physicists, and the advocates for the supersymmetry and multiverse models of...well, everything.

The photography of the collider's innards is astounding. As one physicist puts it while the camera scans acres of extremely small and intricate circuitry, and the immense circular tunnel through which elemental particles course and collide at near light speed, the LHC is like a "5-story tall Swiss watch." It is our era's pyramids, which, with any luck, will cast us favorably in the estimation of future civilizations.

We Colemans have a personal interest in this movie. We took the civilian's tour of CERN last spring, and had a view into the Atlas Experiment's control room, which was prominently featured in the film. The day of our visit, CERN statisticians determined a significant increase in the probability that the mass of the Higgs boson is approximately 125 gigaelectron volts, which seemed to be a pretty big deal. Through this film, we finally got a closeup look at the LHC, which was off-limits to tourists.

Particle Fever is a useful introduction to quarks, particle physics, the size and shape of the universe, and the like. Its even greater value, though, is in its assurance that there are monumental efforts afoot to expand knowledge in the purest sense. As one physicist in the film puts it, "Why do humans do [theoretical] science? Why do humans do art? The very things that are least important to our survival are the things that make us human."

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Sep 11, 2012