Documentary follows 'Particle Fever' surrounding Higgs boson discovery

You can't see the Higgs boson, but you can watch its discovery.

Scientists crowd around dozens of monitors as they collect data from experiments using a looping 17-mile underground tunnel and equipment likened to a five-story Swiss watch. They worry what the media might say if tests fail, and wonder whether the experiment should have been conducted in secret.


And they clamor for a seat in the auditorium where physicists will present their findings in the hunt for the elusive "God particle," a subatomic building block that existed only in theory, but had never been detected.

"Particle Fever," a documentary produced by a Johns Hopkins University physicist, reveals what went on behind the scenes as researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research launched a set of experiments to prove or disprove the particle's existence. Opening at the Charles Theatre on Friday, the documentary takes viewers through the experiment's tests and pitfalls to the cheers and backslaps that came in July 2012 with the revelation that it detected what was later confirmed to be the elusive Higgs boson particle.

"We knew something was going to happen; we just didn't know what exactly," said David Kaplan, the Hopkins physics professor who produced the film. "Even if there was no discovery, it would have a dramatic impact on the people involved because the theories pointed to this energy [existing]."

The experiments conducted at the institution, known by its French acronym of CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, involved blasting particles into collisions at unprecedented energy levels using the $9 billion Large Hadron Collider. They grabbed the attention of physicists and other scientists around the world, with implications for the rules believed to govern the universe.

Scientists observed the high-powered collisions for signs of the Higgs boson, named for British physicist Peter Higgs who theorized its existence in 1964. The boson, a subatomic particle with no spin or electrical charge, is described in the film as the "linchpin" of the Standard Model of cosmology, thought to play a key role in why matter attained mass to form the universe after the Big Bang.

Find the boson, confirm the theory. Or don't find it, and figure out what the heck that means.

"We may discover additional forces. We may discover additional space dimensions, the Higgs boson," said Fabiola Gianotti, an Italian physicist who was spokeswoman for a key experiment, in the film as researchers prepared to launch the first collision. "We may elucidate the mystery and the origin of the universe's dark matter, and who knows, perhaps nature has prepared some nice surprises."

Such questions convinced Kaplan that the long-awaited experiment could have a dramatic arc suitable for cinema.


Before he studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley, Kaplan was a film major at Chapman College in Southern California. In the years leading up to the experiment, as he shared his excitement over the possibilities with "everybody I knew," he said, many suggested he find a way to document it.

He made an eight-minute version using $25,000 in grant money. Armed with that, Kaplan went to the Hopkins board of trustees and to physicists who had transitioned to the financial industry, ultimately raising the project's $1.4 million budget through investors and some support from private foundations and the National Science Foundation.

He also enlisted the help of Mark Levinson, a physicist turned Hollywood sound editor whose work includes "The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," as director, and Walter Murch, the editor of "The English Patient" and "Apocalypse Now." Levinson and a crew of two others, for cinematography and sound, spent the better part of four years filming more than 450 hours of footage at CERN and at U.S. institutions, talking with and observing scientists.

Along the way to a climax at the unveiling of the experiments' findings was the anticipation of the so-called "first beam" test proving the collisions were possible — and that it wouldn't create a black hole on Earth, as some suggested.

Then part of the collider exploded, damaging magnets within a tunnel in September 2008.

"Everything changed, and dramatically, I had a couple of thoughts — 'Oh, my God, if the experiment never works, that will be a terrible film. But if it does work, that's a great dramatic structure,'" Levinson said. The latter "luckily ended up being the case."


Levinson was there for all of the experiments' milestones, though the pressure of ensuring he properly captured them on film sometimes distracted from the experience, he said jokingly.

"Often it wasn't until the evening when I'd go back and realize I just witnessed something absolutely amazing," Levinson said.

Though the researchers succeeded in conducting the collisions, the filmmakers were unsure what would be the film's climax. It turned out to be two PowerPoint presentations in a CERN auditorium where scientists said they detected a particle that appeared to be the Higgs boson. (It was confirmed nine months later.) The film nonetheless provides suspense on the details of the discovery.

"The fact that what happened was so clear-cut and Hollywood ending-like was just dumb luck," Kaplan said.

The film has been well received. It was a "critics' pick" in The New York Times, with a reviewer there calling it "a fascinating movie about science, and an exciting, revealing and sometimes poignant movie about scientists."

Nick Hadley, a University of Maryland physics professor who worked on one of the experiments but wasn't depicted in the film, was invited recently by a Washington, D.C., film enthusiasts' group to a screening and to answer questions afterward. Hadley said the movie buffs found it impressively edited and had plenty of questions about the subject matter.

"I thought it was successful as a movie, because it's a movie, not just a technical documentary," he said. "It captured some of the way we work and the excitement of everything."

The filmmakers said it was their goal to balance between educating and entertaining, as it would be impossible to delve too much into the advanced physics being depicted on screen.

"The whole hope of the film was that the audience experiences science as a scientists does," Kaplan said. "Part of it is not understanding everything and getting a taste of things and being able to root on things without having the whole picture — having maybe a broad sense of the big picture, but not the whole thing."