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12:56 pm
Fri March 21, 2014

Praise For 'Particle Fever'

Director Mark Levinson’s gripping documentary, “Particle Fever,” follows a group of physicists on their colossal endeavor to find a minuscule particle – the Higgs boson.

Often referred to as “the God particle”, the Higgs boson is a subatomic morsel many physicists believe to hold the key to understanding the universe. Essentially, finding it would either confirm or deny everything we know about the cosmos.

NPR’s Arts Editor Trey Graham reviews the film and discusses how this documentary makes for a fascinating, nail-biter of a film.

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Reporter

  • Trey Graham, edits and produces arts and entertainment content for NPR’s Digital Media division. He tweets @treygraham.
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Transcript

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

With the weekend basically here, let's talk about the movies. A nailbiter of a documentary is out. The story line has to do with a bunch of physicists turning on a machine. It's called "Particle Fever," and it's about the launch of the world's biggest atom smasher. NPR arts editor Trey Graham says it's a story where the stakes are as big as - we can't help ourselves here - as big as the universe.

TREY GRAHAM, BYLINE: All you really need to know about "Particle Fever" is that it includes footage of physicists rapping about physics and wearing giant Einstein masks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LARGE HADRON RAP")

KATE MCALPINE: (Singing) The universe starts the big bang. Back when all the matter exploded, but the amount of antimatter was somehow eroded. Because when we look around, we see...

GRAHAM: They're at a party celebrating the launch of their big project, a search for the Higgs Boson, this impossibly small particle that supposedly exits but hasn't ever actually been found. And to get the job done, they spent 20 years building what's called the Large Hadron Collider. The biggest machine mankind has ever constructed. It's an underground ring, 17 miles around, near Geneva in Switzerland. And if it works, it will fling beams of protons around it nearly the speed of light and then smash them head on into each other. The idea is basically to recreate the big bang and see if the Higgs can be detected in the aftermath.

DAVID KAPLAN: I really believe now this will work. But the next thing is, will we ever find something? So maybe we will just find nothing new. It would be a catastrophe for physics. Maybe, it would - somehow, none of the open questions which we have at the moment would have been answered.

GRAHAM: Why go to such a huge effort to measure such a tiny, tiny thing? Because depending on how big the Higgs turns out to be, we either confirm everything we think we know about the laws the govern the universe or we blow up the theory and maybe we never find a better one.

KAPLAN: The problem with the multiverse is that it says the Higgs might be the last particle we ever see.

GRAHAM: That's why those rapping physicists threw themselves such a wild party on the day the collider generates its first proton beam. And it's why they're so rattled nine days later when the machine breaks down, catastrophically, in a way that will require months at least to fix. And it's why they're so elated later on to be able to start interpreting the data after the setbacks have been overcome and the collider is whirring along again.

If I told you that the dramatic climax of "Particle Fever" is a pair of PowerPoint presentations, you'd think I'd lost it. But this film is so good at explaining why this stuff matters and so clever about the graphics and animations that helped explain it and so very good about making you care about and root for the people trying to pin down the Higgs Boson, you'll want to stand up and cheer.

For HERE AND NOW, I'm Trey Graham.

PFEIFFER: And, Robin, we've got an online comment on our story from earlier this hour about rising coffee prices and how much is too much to pay for a cup. Someone who calls himself Captain Dee(ph) wrote, I'm a huge coffee snob. And rather than pay big bucks at coffee shops, I buy beans wholesale, roast my own beans and prepare the best coffee with a shot of espresso and frothed almond milk every day. It cost less than a $1.50 daily, and it's the best coffee around.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

You know, I don't drink coffee but I'm sure those that do are saying, good for you.

PFEIFFER: Exactly.

YOUNG: I can't do that.

PFEIFFER: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.