By: Michael D. McClellan | We humans are a different lot.
An exquisitely beautiful, unquestionably complex lot.
One moment we’re constructing the Great Wall of China, the next we’re writing War and Peace, the next we’re untethered from our atmosphere and taking that historic, giant leap for mankind. We don’t merely exist, we restlessly innovate and incessantly strive to better understand our place in this mysterious thing we call the universe. We sing, we paint, we love, we cry. We challenge assumptions and we push boundaries. Through the millennia we’ve built everything from pyramids to planes, each civilization improving on the last, our imaginations challenging convention and fueling our thirst for knowledge. It’s how we roll. To wit: In the blink of an eye, mankind has gone from harnessing fire to inventing the wheel to exploring the outermost reaches of our solar system, and now a machine exists that turns the lens dramatically inward, one that peers into a strange and unpredictable world inhabited by oddly named things like quarks and leptons.
The machine – the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC for short – is the rock star of the scientific community, a 17-mile tunnel buried deep beneath the border between Switzerland and France, and home to some of the most advanced electronics on earth. It is also the centerpiece of the brilliant documentary Particle Fever, the award-winning film by Mark Levinson and David Kaplan that takes us on the hunt for the elusive Higgs boson, also known in pop culture as the “God particle”. That’s how big the LHC has become. It transcends science and creates buzz in equal doses, its Q Score on par with entertainers such as Nicole Kidman and Vin Diesel, its street cred bolstered by the media’s sensationalized reporting. Remember the speculation that the LHC, once turned on, might destroy the earth or possibly annihilate the entire universe? Remember the resulting lawsuits filed to prevent it from being revved up? That’s what happens when you have the power to create conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. That’s how you cross the realm of theoretical physics and enter the collective minds of the public at large. That’s how you end up on front page of the New York Times. Trust me, Kanye and Kim would sell the naming rights to their firstborn for this kind of media attention (sorry to be the one to break it to you, North West).
Clearly, the LHC has lived up to the hype. The Higgs boson was indeed discovered in 2012 (more on that later), filling a key hole in the Standard Model, which is physics’ explanation of almost everything our universe contains. A machine this important – and science this significant – demanded that a documentary be made, and it was Kaplan, a theoretical physicist at Johns Hopkins University, who shepherded the project from germination to the fully formed masterpiece it is today.
“The LHC was very dramatic for all of us in the scientific community. I would tell everyone I knew who was not a physicist, which is all of my family and most of my friends, about what was happening, because the story was so big. Eventually I got good enough at telling the story that people started taking notice, and that’s when I got the idea of making a movie about the LHC.” – David Kaplan
It’s one thing to have an idea for a film – how many of us have sat around over beers, pitching screenplay ideas to our friends? It’s a completely different animal to take on something this bloody ambitious. Especially with no background in film, no Hollywood connections and no money to get it made.
“I bought a camera and started interviewing people,” Kaplan recalls, “but I quickly realized that this was no way to make a movie. I knew I needed a team of people to help me. My sister knew someone in television who introduced me to my first crew, and together we made an eight minute piece which focused on physicists talking about what might happen with the LHC. The crew did a beautiful job editing it, and it became the tool that I used to raise money for the film.”
It wasn’t as if Kaplan started with a bare cupboard. An expert in the field of particle physics, Kaplan is disarmingly articulate and suitably well-connected at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is where the Large Hadron Collider is built. What he needed was a little luck. That would come in the form of Mark Levinson, who shared Kaplan’s vision and who searched him out to collaborate on the project.
“Mark, who has a degree in physics, but didn’t stay in physics, heard that somebody was trying to make a film about particle physics,” Kaplan says. “At the time, I thought that this was another person without money who wanted to make movies, so I wasn’t interested. But he pursued me for a month before we talked by phone, and then I agreed to meet him in person when I got back from my trip to CERN.
“After that meeting I had a better understanding of Mark’s career choice, which was film. He’d found his niche in sound editing, specifically with something called Additional Dialogue Recording, or ADR. This involves editing recordings of actors to correct lines, or to correct sounds in lines. He has worked as a member of post-production teams on films such as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain, so it really was the perfect fit. After that meeting, I agreed that we would be partners and that we’d make this movie together. That was late 2007. By the spring of 2008, I’d raised enough money to green light the project. And just like that, we were a go.”
Timing, the adage goes, is everything, and with the LHC set to go live on September 10, 2008, Kaplan’s timing proved impeccable indeed.
“Luckily, the LHC had been delayed” Kaplan says. “Everything came together just in time for Mark and I to fly to Geneva in the summer of 2008 and start filming.”
~ ~ ~
Okay, let’s pump the brakes.
Before we can fully appreciate the making of Kaplan’s movie, we need to take a step back and better understand its subject. What, exactly, is the Large Hadron Collider?
The simplest and most stylized answer is a machine that smashes sub-atomic particles together at incredible speeds, allowing scientists to analyze the data in the hope of answering fundamental questions about the universe in which we live. But when the machine in question represents the biggest scientific experiment mankind has ever attempted, with over 10,000 physicists and engineers from 85 countries around the world working for decades to bring it to fruition, the answer goes much deeper – literally, and figuratively.
Imagine a tunnel, circular in shape and 17 miles in circumference. Its interior is 20 feet across. It is deep underground — as deep as 300 feet. In this tunnel lives the largest particle accelerator ever built. It’s job is to accelerate protons, or hydrogen nuclei, at 99.999999 percent the speed of light, a mind-boggling number when you consider that light travels at a pedestrian 671,000,000 miles per hour, or 186,000 miles per second.
The accelerated particles go round and round the tunnel, some clockwise, some counterclockwise, traveling together in packs, or beams, with about 100,000,000,000 protons in each beam. The particles circle the tunnel about 10,000 times a second, colliding at four points along the 17 mile ring. Think of these points as giant detectors, which are essentially digital cameras that recreate the conditions that were present less than a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. The detectors, as you might imagine, are enormous. They are also interestingly named. Atlas, for example, is 46 meters wide, 25 meters in diameter, and 7,000 tons of machine. It sits in an underground cavern that is – gulp! – 10 stories tall. There are approximately 3,000 kilometers of cable and more than 100 million electronic channels involved. It is a scientific marvel.
For Kaplan, the challenge was simple: How do you tell the story of something so incredibly complex, and yet do it in a way that it could be understood and appreciated by the masses?
“I decided that I didn’t want to be in any of the shoots,” Kaplan says. “I was going to play the role of physicist, and Mark was going to be behind the camera. That would feed both of our strengths. It would also allow me to interact with people, because the whole idea was to have the audience live through the experience with me.”
The film is a linear telling of the LHC, from first beam to first collision to the historic discovery of the Higgs boson, the theorized sub-atomic particle thought to comprise the Higgs field. Physicists have long pointed to the Higgs field as the fabric that slowed certain energies immediately after the Big Bang, creating mass and matter in the process. If true, it is the Higgs field that led to the formation of everything in our known universe: Galaxies, black holes, stars, planets…even you and me.
What about the film? Was there a metaphorical Higgs field that gave Particle Fever the critical mass it needed to get made?
“To use that analogy, I would say the Higgs boson was Walter Murch. In the mid-80s, Mark was doing post-production work on The Unbearable Likeness of Being, of which Walter Murch was editing. Walter had discovered that someone in the building had a PhD in physics, and desperately wanted to talk to him about string theory. And that’s how Mark and Walter met.” – David Kaplan
Murch, it should be said, is the Oscar-winning film editor with such credits as The Godfather, American Graffiti, and Apocalypse Now on his résumé. He has worked with legendary directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. How were Levinson and Kaplan able to lure such a heavyweight into the mix?
“We had filmed for a few years, and had hired an editor,” Kaplan says. “Her name is Mona Davis, and she’s a traditional documentary film editor. She’s quite good. We’d gotten about eighteen months of editing under our belt, and that’s when I decided we needed someone more inspired by the physics. Mona was great in terms of bringing a lot of the human story out, but she didn’t care very much about the physics. As a result, her approach didn’t really allow us to incorporate the physics into the narrative. So we decided to part ways on mutual terms.
“That’s when Mark reached out to Walter. We had been sending him clips from our film all along, and Walter was getting excited about it. So he thought about it for a few weeks, and a big project that he was going to do just happened to fall through. That’s when he decided to step in and help us. We’d gotten very lucky yet again.
“He agreed to do three months of editing, to help clean it up. Well, three months turned into fifteen months, during which time the Higgs boson went from evidence, given in one lecture in December of 2011, to a full-fledged discovery of the Higgs boson in July of 2012. Walter incorporated that ending into the film. Even for Walter, it was a very difficult movie to edit, because of what it took to illustrate complicated physics in an honest, yet completely understandable and compelling way. I only realized after the fact that it took a genius like Walter to actually cut this film.”
Watching Particle Fever, one can’t help but grasp the historical significance of the experiments taking place at the LHC. The 99 minutes that unfold onscreen are, arguably, in the same rarified air as Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. Does Kaplan see it the same way?
“To quote the great philosopher, Yogi Berra,” Kaplan says, “it’s very hard to make predictions, especially about the future [laughs]. I think it’s too close to my heart to be able to make that prediction. But everybody around me, even from the very early stages of making this film, saw this as something that would last for a long time. It’s really the first documentary of a major scientific discovery as it happens in real time.”
~ ~ ~
Need additional evidence that the Large Hadron Collider has secured its rightful place in pop culture? Consider the curious case of Eloi Cole, the would-be saboteur arrested on April 1, 2010 at the LHC, after making the bizarre claim that he was from the future. Cole, a strangely dressed young man (tweed, head to toe), said that he had travelled back in time to prevent the LHC from destroying the world. His goal? Disrupt the LHC’s particle collisions by stopping supplies of Mountain Dew to the experiment’s vending machines. Following his arrest, Cole mysteriously disappeared from his cell, as if vanishing into the ether.
A real-life security breach? An April Fool’s ruse propagated by CERN and broadcast worldwide? The better question: What is it about the LHC that fascinates us so?
“I have no idea,” Kaplan says, laughing. “There are many things about the project that are overwhelming. You have 10,000 people from over 100 countries working on it, so that makes it the biggest worldwide collaboration of any kind. This includes people collaborating who never collaborate because they don’t have official political relationships with each other.
“It demonstrates that something this pure – simply trying to understand physical reality and gain a better description of us in the universe – is something at an inspiring enough level that it will bring people together. I like to say that people at CERN speak physics first, and that their second language is whatever they grew up speaking. People at CERN relate to one another in this way because we all follow the same credo – ‘What is the truth?’ In this case, it’s the truth about the physical laws that govern us, and it goes well beyond provincial issues or identity.”
Particle Fever stays true to the physics, but it also captures the human emotions that come with the highs and lows in the months leading up to the discovery of the Higgs boson. It accomplishes this by telling the inside story of six brilliant scientists seeking to unravel the mysteries of the universe, giving us an inside look at some of the most respected names in the field. They center us emotionally, and give us reason to care.
A good, old-fashioned crisis never hurts, either. It comes in the form of a helium leak, which jeopardizes the experiment and provides dramatic tension in the film.
If there were a book titled Large Hadron Collider for Dummies, it would explain that there are four main ingredients that comprise the accelerator: Particles to accelerate. A pipe to hold them. Superconducting magnets to steer them. And a refrigeration system to keep the magnets extremely cold, and therefore very powerful. That’s where the helium comes in. And that helium, as you might suspect, is critical in keeping the magnets from overheating.
Ergo, the worldwide angst created by the leak as the LHC was about to go live.
“There are two main components to the LHC,” Kaplan explains. “One is the accelerator that you just described. And then there are the detectors, which are the points around the ring where the beams collide. So the first thing you need to do is get the beams going. And then you need to be able to aim them, so that they will collide with each other inside the detectors. Finally, you have the collisions themselves.
“So the first beam that occurs in the movie is our attempt to get one beam going around one of the tubes, just to see if the accelerator itself works. There was a decision made immediately after that great success of achieving first beam; instead of having collisions occur at low energies, they wanted to see if they could ramp up the magnets, to see if they could go to high energies. This would be necessary later anyway, because you need a beam at high energy in order to discover things like the Higgs. It turned out that there was a fault in the last sector of magnets that they tested. When they ramped up that sector, one of those magnets overheated and blew up.” – David Kaplan
The biggest, most powerful microscope in the history of science, falling flat on its face from the very outset? An epic fail with the entire world watching?
“All of the magnets around the ring are superconducting electromagnets,” Kaplan says. “They use an electrical current to create a magnetic field. And if you use a lot of electrical current, then you generate a lot of magnetic field, which can then be used to bend very powerful beams of protons.
“To have enough electric current, you also need the wires to be superconducting, which requires that you bring the materials to very cold temperatures – just a bit colder than deep space. That’s -271 degrees Celsius. And in order to do that, you need tons of liquefied helium pumping through the 17 mile ring, just to keep the wires cool.
“Between the magnets you have blocks of copper. One of the blocks was faulty, causing it to heat up. This caused the helium to heat up and start to boil off – to go from liquid to gas. The copper melted so quickly that it destroyed the failsafe mechanism, and the helium couldn’t be released through the relief valve fast enough.
“Anywhere from two to ten tons of liquid helium turned to gas almost instantly, and blew up. It ripped a seven ton magnet out of the concrete and threw it across the tunnel. And apparently, it also blew an 18” thick steel door off of its hinges, filling the tunnel with helium gas.”
The film expertly captures the resulting tension in the control room, as scientists scramble to understand what had just gone wrong. A major setback for physics, but also a fulcrum on which the movie’s plot would pivot.
“On top, nobody knew what had happened, other than there was a significant fault and it had stopped working,” Kaplan says, reflecting on the 12, 000 amps of current that created the film’s crisis moment. “But they couldn’t send people down there, because there wasn’t any oxygen in that part of the tunnel – it was dominated by helium – and it was also incredibly cold. So they had to wait a number of days before conditions allowed a fire crew to go down and see what happened. That footage in the tunnel – in the dark, with the light shining – is the first footage of the magnets and the machine, when they were discovering what had actually happened.”
A significant blow, given that any repairs would take a minimum of two months to complete. Consider: It takes three weeks to warm up the machine, and another three weeks to cool it back down. That’s six weeks, plus whatever time is needed to perform the repairs.
“Word started getting out about how bad it was,” Kaplan says. “People were devastated. It was a shock to go from anticipating collisions in a week, and all the euphoria that came with first beam, to not being sure when the LHC was going to be turned back on again.”
Particle Fever conveys this wrenching uncertainty with aplomb. It also gives us a glimpse into the project’s collective human spirit, and the never-say-die attitude that helps the scientific community overcome the helium setback to reach new heights.
“People went back and did a lot of boring calibration of the machine using cosmic rays, and improving the computing. The amazing thing is that, fourteen months later when it finally did turn on, they got the beams going and they got first collisions. And then, four or five months after that, they finally brought the collisions to high energies safely – not as high as they had planned, but still quite high. The machine at that point worked perfectly. The detectors were calibrated perfectly and understood incredibly well, because everyone used the fourteen months of downtime to make improvements. So in the end, that was the benefit of having the plug pulled for more than a year. All of these people who were prepared to analyze data instead spent the time improving their analysis tools in the detector.” – David Kaplan
~ ~ ~
The story goes like this: The universe exploded 13.7 billion years ago, in an immensely hot, dense state, much smaller than a single atom. It began to expand about a million, billion, billion, billion billionth of a second after the Big Bang. Gravity immediately separated away from the other forces. The universe then underwent an exponential expansion, which physicists refer to as cosmic inflation, and in about the first billionth of a second or so, the Higgs field kicked in, and exotically named particles like quarks, W bosons and electrons acquired mass.
The universe continued to expand and cool, containing only hydrogen and helium. After about 400 thousand years, light began to travel through the universe. After about 200 million years, the first stars formed, and that hydrogen and helium began to cook into the heavier elements. Then came the elements of life – the carbon, oxygen and iron needed to make us up.
Fast forward: Man arrives on the scene with a deep desire to understand how things work. Physics splits into two camps– the theoretical physicists, who work in the abstract world of theories and what-ifs, and the experimental physicists, who attempt to prove or disprove the abstract ruminations of their theoretical counterparts. It’s a symbiotic relationship, a yin-yang relationship, a matter-antimatter relationship. Picture Bernie Taupin writing the lyrics and Elton John taking those lyrics and creating the song, and you have a pop culture analogy suitable to the LHC’s rock star status.
It was in 1964 that one such theoretical physicist – Dr. Peter Higgs, then a 35-year old assistant professor at the University of Edinburgh – predicted the existence of a new particle that would ultimately bear his name. Half a century later, on July 4, 2012, Higgs pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away a tear as he sat in a lecture hall at CERN, and heard that his particle had finally been found.
For Levinson, Kaplan and the rest of the Particle Fever team, the discovery of the Higgs boson provided a pinch-me finale that none of them had dared dreamed possible. Sure, Kaplan was confident that the LHC would reveal the Higgs boson at some point – otherwise, everything we know about the Standard Model would be called into question. But to have it confirmed so soon? And to be able to include this historic footage in the film?
“It was almost a boring scientific discovery in some respects,” says Kaplan. “The vast majority of physicists felt that the Higgs would be discovered at the LHC, but we knew that there would be other physics there, too, which could make it harder to see. We were looking for things beyond the Standard Model, more speculative theories that we wanted to see confirmed or ruled out. We thought it would take years for the machine to see the Higgs.
“That started to change after the accident, when the machine had to run at lower energies. They discovered that the rate of collisions was happening much faster than they had predicted. The Higgs wasn’t the heaviest particle or the most energetic particle that they were looking for, but it is produced very rarely at those energies. Ultimately, it wasn’t the highest energy that revealed the Higgs, but the sheer volume of collisions generated.”
The collisions represented the intersection of the theoretical and experimental worlds of physics, the taking of the abstract idea and actually testing it in the real world – and doing so on the grandest of scales. For Kaplan, it was a surreal culmination decades in the making.
Kaplan: “As a theoretical physicist, the Higgs was always something that was written on a piece of paper. It was part of our theories, and it was part of the things we worked with. We had theories predicting different masses, or how the Higgs would work together with different particles in different ways, but when you’re writing a theory you never think that you’re describing the universe. You can’t. It would freeze you. It’s a toy; you’re just thinking of what the universe could do. So, you’re in a different mindset when you’re theorizing. It allows you to be nimble and creative, instead of writing down exactly what must be true. You need to be more speculative in the theory stage. And here we were, actually conducting experiments to test those theories.”
What was it like to be David Kaplan, theoretical physicist turned movie maker, during the time between the resumption of the collisions and the announcement of the Higgs boson?
“It was a rollercoaster of emotion,” he says quickly. “Both in terms of the physics and the movie. Would we capture it? Would we not? In December, 2011, they decided they had enough data – that there was evidence to suggest that the Higgs had been detected. In June, 2012, we started hearing rumors that CERN would make another announcement about the Higgs. At that point I thought I wouldn’t care that much, but as the days got closer to the announcement I found myself getting very excited. So I drove up to Princeton and watched the announcement with Nima, who is one of the theorists featured in the film, along with about twenty-five other people. It was broadcast live from CERN, so it was about three o’clock in the morning for us.
“It was an overwhelming moment, because this thing went from an abstract idea to an actual physical particle. We’re not just telling stories anymore. Collectively, the field of physics had figured out something that is true about the universe. Imagine, this abstract mathematical idea has been debated for years. As a theorist you’re confident it’s there, because it holds the theory together, but to see it all come together and actually work – to prove that it really exists in nature, and that we’ve just never seen it until now…it was overwhelmingly positive, and in that moment it was also shocking and surreal.
“Part of the reason I wanted to make the movie was simply due to the edge of knowledge in which we’re working. The experiments are challenging for physics reasons, for engineering reasons, for political reasons…and these are also very expensive projects that require massive collaboration from all over the world. So they’re becoming much more rare. Science funding has been decreasing for the past thirty years. Everything’s tight. It’s hard to predict when the next breakthrough will occur. To be able to capture this discovery in the film was as emotional for the team as it was for all of the scientists who collaborated to discover the Higgs.”
~ ~ ~
The sex appeal of the Large Hadron Collider may not stack up with Beyoncé, but it’s close. And everyone, it seems, is digging the Higgs. There are t-shirts, coffee mugs and plenty of other trinkets to geek out your world, all with the click of a mouse.
In the wake of the Higgs discovery, a couple of other terms have been gaining public mindshare: Multiverse and supersymmetry. Both are directly linked to the discovery of the Higgs boson and the science that will surely follow, and the mass of the Higgs plays a key role in both theories. The Higgs weighed in at around 125 GeV (giga-electron-volts), smack dab in the middle of two schools of thought. The film – and the physics – leaves us at a fork in the road.
Supersymmetry theory suggests that when the universe was created, there was also the same number of theoretical ‘super particles’ created. Think of a superparticle is the supersymmetric copy of its counterpart – that is, regular matter. If this theory is true, it would at least double the number of particles in the universe.
“There are deep mysteries about the Higgs, and we really don’t understand it,” Kaplan says. “We need to understand much more to understand where the Higgs came from, how it ended up there, and how it ended up creating matter in the first place. Supersymmetry in a sense lends a lot more information about the story, and suggests that we will see more things. The Higgs isn’t alone. There are a number of other particles that live around the same energy, maybe slightly heavier, and if we have enough energy to produce them, then we’ll understand more to the story.
“The multiverse is suggestive that there are no other particles besides the Higgs that are accessible to us. In a sense, the Higgs ended up doing what it did in the Standard Model by accident. There are parts of the greater universe where the Higgs doesn’t give mass to particles, and doesn’t create matter. So the multiverse is a broader idea that the laws of physics are different in different parts of a much vaster multiverse.” – David Kaplan
So, if Kaplan were a betting man, which way would he lean?
“The real indicator of which one is right is whether we see new particles in a collider. So far we haven’t, but the LHC was running at less energy. We’d hope that the mass of the Higgs would be the indicator of which way it would go, but it really didn’t give us the information we expected. If I had to guess, I’d guess we were a little bit more multiverse than supersymmetry.”
~ ~ ~
While the discovery of the Higgs boson won Peter Higgs a Nobel Prize for Physics, it was also a huge triumph for the multi-billion dollar Large Hadron Collider. Kaplan, however, is quick to point out that the celebration should be enjoyed by many.
“I think the hubbub over Peter Higgs is a little much,” he says. “It’s sort of missing the point. He is representative of something that’s going on all the time, which is that there are lots of theorists working on abstract things, and that it is all necessary for anybody to end up figuring out what is going on.
“Ironically, he thought it could be applied to something called the strong nuclear force. He turned out to be wrong. It didn’t work. A few years later, Steven Weinberg applied it to the weak nuclear force, and there it did work. But having Higgs receive the Nobel Prize provided the perfect ending for the film.
“With that said, the fact that Higgs and François Englert shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery is fun for me. You never know when something you’re working on is going to be all-important, and the center of a real theory that describes the universe. Again, it requires everybody in the field contributing. I really love the fact that this is not just the genius of the field who now finally gets rewarded. Peter Higgs was simply a member of the theory community from the 60s who worked on this for a few months and then moved on to other things.”
~ ~ ~
Like the discovery of the Higgs boson, the process of creating Particle Fever took the efforts of many, and Kaplan is quick to give credit to all involved. It’s clear, however, that Particle Fever wouldn’t have gotten made without the Kaplan’s vision, passion and dogged determination.
“I don’t want to make movies for a living,” he says. “I just wanted this movie to be made. I think that’s what it takes more broadly – if you see something that you think would be amazing, or cool or interesting if somebody did it, then you do it. In my case, I knew that unless somebody from inside the field made this film, it would never happen. And I knew how crazy it would be for anybody inside the field to take this on. It became a question of ‘If not me, who?’ I felt responsible in a sense. I also had the confidence – unjustified confidence, perhaps – that I could do it. In physics, if you have an idea, and you feel that it’s big, then you don’t let go. So I did it.”