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Particle Fever: The dramatic story behind the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson

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4 July 2012 was a hugely significant date for the world of science, as it was the day the discovery of the Higgs boson – or ‘God particle’ – was announced. It had been almost half a century since Professor Peter Higgs first predicted its existence, but once the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was switched on, scientists could recreate the conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang to finally find this elusive particle. It became one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in history and now you can get a front-row seat to see how it all happened.

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Director Mark Levinson. ©Tom Catchesides. Photo Courtesy of PF Productions
Director Mark Levinson © Tom Catchesides_Photo Courtesy of PF Productions

Particle Fever is directed by physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson, and follows six scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider as they seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe. The film was originally the brainchild of David Kaplan, a professor of theoretical particle physics at Johns Hopkins University, and he recruited Mark to turn his vision into a reality. “[David] could see that when this thing turned on there was dramatic potential of what it could do” said Mark, “Here was something people had been working on for 30 years, and you could almost calculate as a theorist that when it turned on, something was going to change. When I heard about it I contacted David and told him I was not interested in doing a typical informational science documentary, but if I could use narrative and character-based tools to tell this story in a dramatic way, that would be very interesting. And that was really what David wanted too.”

Before embarking on his film career, Mark earned a PhD in particle physics from the University of California at Berkeley, but then went into post-production and worked closely with such directors as Anthony Minghella, Francis Coppola, Tom Tykwer, Milos Forman and David Fincher. His physics background allowed him to jump right in to filming Particle Fever without having to learn the science beforehand, but it also came in useful for another reason entirely. Mark said: “It really enabled me the confidence to decide what we were not going to include. Right from the beginning we decided that this was not going to be the film that explained all the physics, but the hope was that we could really be there and show the process and the people. When we were constructing the film the focus was just on the narrative and dramatic story. Initially we had no science explanations in the film. Walter Munch (the film’s editor) and I, neither of us had done a documentary before and we just approached it like a narrative fiction film, looking at the dramatic story and character development, then we would go back an insert the science we thought was needed. We tried to be very clever and have it coming organically from situations that were already in the film so that you don’t even realise that you’re learning something.”

Filming on Particle Fever started back in 2008, before the Large Hadron Collider had even been switched on, and there were moments when the fate of the film was thrown into jeopardy. “I think I was pretty confident it was going to turn on, but ten days after I started shooting there was a huge accident (a faulty electrical connection led to the rupture of a liquid helium enclosure and delayed further operations by 14 months) and that was very much a worrying moment. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, maybe there is no film here. If this thing never even starts up that would be pretty disasterous.’ But luckily that didn’t happen. Although I was pretty confident it would turn on, I really didn’t expect that they were going to find the Higgs [boson], and I think most of the physicists didn’t either. Not while we were filming anyway. I thought that they would find it, but almost all of the physicists said that it probably won’t happen while we were filming because it’s such a rare event and its going to take them many years to really understand their equipment and to be able to filter out all the noise. So I was constantly thinking, what is going to be the end of the film?”

The Large Hadron Collider. Photo Courtesy of CERN
The Large Hadron Collider. Photo Courtesy of CERN

Luckily, smashing together beams of protons – the ‘hearts of atoms’ – at close to the speed of light, finally led to the Higgs boson being found. However, when the momentous announcement was made, Mark actually had other things on his mind. “At the actual moment of the announcement, I was thinking like a filmmaker, which was ‘oh my god, I hope I’ve got this in focus, I hope I’ve got sound’, you know, all the practical things. It was only that night when I went back to my hotel room and looked on the internet to see that everybody in the world was talking about this, that I became conscious of the fact that I had witnessed it.”

Particle Fever has already been released in the USA and has also won the prestigious Best Science or Natural History Documentary Award at this year’s Grierson Awards. Mark is very pleased with how it has been received so far and hopes UK audiences will also enjoy the story behind the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet. He said: “I think the thing people enjoy most about the film is that whatever their level of understanding of the science, they can understand and appreciate what this is about. I think people are surprised that it’s such a human endeavour. I remember in the first test screenings one of the major reactions was ‘they’re normal people’. I think people are surprised that the scientists involved are funny and passionate and emotional. I also love that fact that people are often crying at the end of the film and someone even started a [Twitter] hashtag, #ICriedAtParticleFever.”

Particle Fever is in UK cinemas this month, showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford on 3 November with a guest appearance from Sky At Night presenter Chris Lintott and at the Barbican, London on 25 November with Brian Cox. The film is also available now on Amazon TVODiTunes and Simple Cinema. You can watch the trailer for the film below, and find out more on the Particle Fever website.