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by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

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Watching “Particle Fever”

By Sara Foss
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

As subjects go, I’ve always found physics pretty interesting. It seems a lot like philosophy, in that it aims to answer basic questions about the universe.

But here’s the thing: Try as I might, I’ve never been able to understand physics. I received just one C in high school — in physics. In college, I barely passed a physics course that was geared toward liberal arts majors with poor math and science skills. When I attended an academic enrichment camp as a teenager, I lived in a dorm with students studying physics, and I thought they were the smartest people on campus. But I never knew what they were talking about.

I gave up on understanding physics long ago. But on Tuesday night I bravely headed off to the Spectrum in Albany to watch “Particle Fever,” the highly acclaimed new documentary about one of the biggest scientific experiments ever conducted: The attempt, using a massive machine called the Large Hadron Collider, to recreate the conditions that existed immediately after the Big Bang.

Using arresting, behind-the-scenes footage, the film teaches viewers about the LHC, the world’s most powerful particle collider. A 17-mile tunnel located in Switzerland, it enables physicists to test their theories, and in “Particle Fever” we follow the much-publicized effort to prove or disprove the existence of the Higgs particle, nicknamed the God particle.

Directed by Mark Levinson, who earned a doctorate in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, “Particle Fever” is an accessible film, and it does a very good job of explaining all of this stuff and wringing a fair amount of suspense out of what is essentially a large-scale science experiment. Unexpected developments, such as a helium leak that delays the project, are depicted as thrilling and potentially devastating twists, while the big meeting where the physicists unveil their findings is given the same breathless and excited treatment as, say, the climatic scenes in a legal potboiler.

The lively filmmaking, use of colorful illustrative graphics and personable interviews with some of the physicists working on the project all converge to create a pretty enjoyable educational experience.

That said, “Particle Fever” reminded me a little bit of how I used to feel after math class: Although the material often made sense when my teacher was explaining it, I found myself beset by confusion and helplessness as soon as I sat down to do my homework. I watched “Particle Fever” last night, and I’m hard-pressed to provide a definition of what the Higgs particle actually is, other than to mumble something about how its discovery could change everything.

That said, I probably learned more about physics from this movie than I learned during an entire year of high school physics, and I found the emerging debate over whether there is more than one universe — a multiverse, if you will — fairly interesting. But if I think about it too much, I feel like my head will explode. Which must be the potential side effect of watching a movie about particle physics, I guess.

But whenever the movie threatened to lose me with its difficult science and math, the scientists usually brought me around. “Particle Fever” focuses on a half-dozen, and they’re articulate, interesting and capable of breaking down challenging concepts for the layman. My favorite was Nima Arkani-Hamed, a brilliant American physicist whose parents — both physists — fled Iran when he was a child.

“Particle Fever” effectively taps into the same public hunger for scientific programming that the TV show “Cosmos” does. As the credits rolled, I turned to my friend and said, “I still don’t understand physics,” and he admitted that he doesn’t, either. But we might understand physics just a little bit more, which, when you consider my previous failed efforts to understand physics, is saying something.

Got a comment? Email me at sfoss@dailygazette.net.

 
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