How to make an exciting film about an improbable collision

In new documentary ‘Particle Fever,’ the international scientific community prepares for its greatest moment in living history

Installing the ATLAS calorimeter in 'Particle Fever' (Courtesy of CERN)
Installing the ATLAS calorimeter in 'Particle Fever' (Courtesy of CERN)

NEW YORK — Once every few years I pick up a copy of “Scientific American” at an airport. I usually understand about half of it, but what I do get makes me realize that there are titans who walk among us – the physicists who are figuring out, albeit slowly, all the secrets of the universe.

Some of them work with chalkboards and numbers, others with enormously expensive and intricate experimental equipment. For decades, scientists have collaborated at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland to “smash particles.”

Somehow, having a seventeen mile circular tube under the ground was supposed to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang and answer fundamental questions about Existence. Yeah, I never quite got it either. Until, that is, I saw the thrilling and entertaining documentary “Particle Fever.”

Directed by Mark Levinson and produced by David Kaplan, who is also one of the key theoretical physicists highlighted in the film, “Particle Fever” explains just what the heck these eggheads were up to at CERN (the international body that runs the LHC) and shows the breathtaking accomplishment of the engineers.

The movie is half philosophical stroll, half “Apollo 13” and filled with really extraordinary characters. Instead of landing on the moon, the scientists confirmed that the mysterious Higgs Boson, also known as the “God Particle” was real. The movie explains why this is so important. It’s also fun. I cannot recommend it enough.

I had the good fortune to speak with Levinson and Kaplan in a conversation that flew all over the place, touching on topics both relevant and tangential. An edited transcript is below.

I have to congratulate you. I don’t really understand this stuff, yet I was able to follow this movie. I mean, no spoilers, but, to really get reductive: you’ve got the set-up, the Large Hadron Collider, you got David’s position, you’ve got Nima [Arkani-Hamed, the handsome, young rock star physician of Persian descent at Princeton]’s position, you have a showdown and a twist ending. What a story! It works for an average schmoe like me.

Mark Levinson: We needed it to work for an average schmoe like you. We want the others as well, but what we wanted to do was show you the process and the excitement. This isn’t the film for the details. We want people like you.

David Kaplan: But, you did get it. There are lots of details we didn’t tell you, but you got the slice of the story that is key.

But I have questions. Okay, so you have the LHC. And I pretty much understand what it is supposed to do. But one thing I don’t get is right at the beginning of the test. You say “we’re putting a particle in the beam.” So, like, the particle, like, a fleck of dust…

Kaplan: Oh, much, much smaller than that!

Yes, a particle isn’t even an atom, it’s a part of an atom.

Kaplan: Correct.

Okay, so you need a VERY VERY thin set of tweezers to get this particle in the beam! I mean, what is this a particle of? How do you even see it?

‘You don’t just go to the store to get particles’

Kaplan: This is what you have to do. First: the “tweezers” are made of things that are bigger than the particle itself. You can’t pick it up. Second: atoms feel solid, but atoms are a collection of wavy things and the forces between them, which make them solid. So, how do you get particles? You don’t just go to the store to get particles.

Although the canister of all the particles that will ever go around the LHC is about the size of a fire extinguisher. It’s plugged into a pipe and some of the Hydrogen gas, which is only one proton and one electron, is released into one part of the machine. Then you have to split them apart, so this machine is like a very strong battery with positive and negative charges that rip apart these atoms. When they rip apart we have these magnetic fields – these giant magnets – that pull the plus charged particles to go one way and negative to the other.

So, this is in an antechamber near the big loop? And when you say “ah, we’ve got a particle!” that’s when you direct it into the beam?

Kaplan:  Yes, it was a machine designed in the 1930s called the Cockcroft-Walton Machine. It pulls it apart an atom.

So how does it get just one atom out of there?

Kaplan:  No, it gets trillions.

So how do you get just one in the collider?

Kaplan:  You get trillions in the collider! The particles are so tiny. The beam is less than a human hair, which is still huge compared to the particles. So, we’re aiming them, and the probability of two particles hitting is like one guy here in New York and another on the Moon are shooting a gun, and trying to get the bullets to hit. So you send trillions at a time and maybe a dozen collide. And ONE of those collisions, hopefully, is hard enough that something interesting happens.

David Kaplan (left) and Mark Levinson, the creators of 'Particle Fever' (Jordan Hoffman/The Times of Israel)
David Kaplan (left) and Mark Levinson, the creators of ‘Particle Fever’ (Jordan Hoffman/The Times of Israel)

Aha. So, you’re hoping that when these two particles collide, this has enough momentum that it reproduces the characteristics of the Big Bang.

Kaplan: It’s like a collision that happened very early in the Universe, when the whole Universe was hot and everything was hitting each other.

Okay. So, bear with me now. In this movie we get to witness how everyone thinks the results of this experiment are going to give us some specific data. They boil it down, the number is either going to be X and it is going to prove your theory, one of supersymmetry, or it is going to be Y and it is going to prove your friend Nima’s theory, a darker, more nihilistic theory of a Multiverse. And then, holy smokes, it is somewhere in between. Back to the drawing board.

So all the theorists and the engineers at CERN are convinced that this big spin of the LHC is going to reproduce the setting of the Big Bang. What if they’re wrong? What if what we don’t know is that it actually needs to be 17 times faster and bigger and hotter? Has anyone thought about this?

Levinson: Of course! We worry about it!

Kaplan: Absolutely.

In the movie there’s talk about discovering the Higgs Boson, which is the big win, but also a hope to find other new particles, which you did not.

Kaplan: Exactly. The core reason I thought someone had to make this movie is not because “we’ll discover the Higgs and everyone will be happy.” It was because our community thought “either we’ll discover a whole bunch of stuff or we won’t discover anything.” And the “not discover anything” path could be for a hundred years. It could be for the collider that is ten times bigger.

So maybe this isn’t a binary thing. Maybe you just need a bigger boat.

Kaplan: It’s binary for our generation. Because it will take that long to build a bigger one – money, politics, sociology. People don’t understand why we’re doing this in the first place.

That’s discouraging. There’s the scene where there was almost a collider built in Texas but the Republicans in Congress shut it down. But I imagine there is some US money in CERN.

Kaplan: Of all the countries, the US is the largest financier of the LHC at 5%. But the one in Texas was going to be bigger. Some of the theories people have worked on – some of the work that Nima and I have collaborated on since the Higgs, some of those theories would have required the Texas machine.

Poster for 'Particle Fever' (Bond360)
Poster for ‘Particle Fever’ (Bond360)

I was reminded of movies like “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff” and the space race the Cold War. But this movement needs its John Glenn.

Levinson: That is one of the purposes of the film – to get people excited.

It’s amazing how movies work. I was absolutely thrilled by the movie, but what was I really seeing? There were two invisible particles smashing into one another and then later an Italian woman [Fabiola Gianotti] gives a power point presentation with Comic Sans font.

Levinson: The power of the movies!

The work you are doing, does it tie in with the “Theory of Everything?” And… what is that again?

Kaplan: From Einstein’s general relativity to quantum mechanics, yes, there’s a question, and it’s all part of a big set of questions, and we think we know where that kind of question is answered. For that we need a much larger machine.

Levinson: That’s the bigger boat you mentioned it.

[At this point I rambled a bit about what I thought quantum mechanics was, until David couldn’t take it anymore and stopped me, because I had no idea what I was talking about.]

Kaplan: Look, the reason you smash things together is this: Smash two particles and something comes out. The mass going in is something, the mass coming out is much higher. Where the hell did that come from? So, you can say “E=mc2.” You are converting high energy particles into mass, a different form of energy. But where were the particles in the first place? Where did they come from? Were they inside the protons? No, there was too much mass – too much stuff. So when you smash two particles together you are exciting the vacuum of space.

‘You are learning what the vacuum is made of’

The way you do it is you smash them together, some parts of them annihilate, then you have a pocket of energy right there without any conditions or rules or numbers. It pops back out and you are reflecting something off the vacuum itself. You are learning what the vacuum is made of.

This is like shining a light on a shirt and say “oh, it is red.” The light is white, the reflection back is red. You have learned something about the atomic structure of that shirt. In the same way, we are learning about the deep structure of the vacuum itself.

Were you into sci-fi as a kid?

Levinson: Definitely not for me.

Kaplan: Not really. I loved “Star Wars” when I was nine or so. But I only saw it once, all my friends saw it ten times. I liked “Star Trek” a little more.

Levinson: When I got really into physics in college it was so amazing and mind blowing, why would I be interested in sci-fi? This was the real thing.

Kaplan: I think you’ll find it rare that science fiction inspires the scientist. The scientist is obsessed with what’s true. These are the greatest puzzle of all time. You go after them. If you want to know the Truth, you don’t want a subjective answer. You want something real. What is true?

Your colleague Savas Dimopoulos mentions that he was drawn to science for this very reason, with his upbringing, because he was torn between two political theories in Turkey and Greece. He’s such a great character. There are a lot of great characters in the film but you dispel, a bit, the mystique of the “mad scientist.”

Levinson [laughing]: Our apologies.

You shoot a lot of this movie at Princeton, at the Institute of Advanced Study.

Kaplan: Yes, that’s where Nima is based out of.

And this is where Einstein was for much of his life. And he’s such an icon with his hair flying around, and so consumed with deep thought that he would forget to tie his shoes or find his way home. I don’t know if that’s apocryphal…

Kaplan: Well, I don’t know, maybe at the end of his life…

Okay, well it makes a nice story. Either way, here you are, and Nima, and you’re playing ping pong, you’re driving yourself to the web streaming at 3 am. You exist in the real world, you don’t just exist in your head with numbers. At this level of such brilliance are there people out there operating at such an elevation of thought that they can’t pour themselves a cup of tea?

Kaplan: Heh, well, you have to set up your life first. Even Einstein had seven outfits for the week labeled Monday through Sunday. You simplify your life so you don’t have to think of anything else. Nima is a little bonkers. He gets into troubles with cars and tickets and suspended licenses and houses that he doesn’t sell or forgets about. So, it’s true, we operate at different levels of proficiency in the rest of our lives than in our work.

Levinson: But he isn’t an absent minded professor. He’s personable and engaging. This is one of the main things we want to show in the film – to show the real physics and the real physicists. What you see in most films, fiction and non, is a stereotype of scientists. We have great people in this film, some we interviewed but didn’t include, and none are off-putting or obnoxious.

Savas has a quote in the film that just killed me. He said, and it just rolled off the tongue, “jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the key to success.”

Levinson: He’s like a Greek philosopher.

And he’s being comforting. He’s speaking to an older colleague of his who worries that he won’t live to see the results of the LHC.

Levinson: We should really collect a book of all his sayings.

You are both Jewish men or of Jewish heritage. Does being Jewish influence your work, particularly with science or big questions?

Levinson: I wouldn’t say so. Not for me.

Questioning things? Arguing at the dinner table? Other cliches?

Kaplan: I hate to apply cliches, but certainly. My father is Israeli. He loved math but felt he wasn’t good at it. As a child he didn’t read me bedtime stories, but he taught me math tricks. He taught me basic number theory without realizing it. It was of deep interest to him. Now he loves it because he can call me and ask me questions about Einstein’s theories and see if he’s right about something. Now, is this because he is Jewish? I don’t know.

He grew up in a war zone. He turned seventeen in 1948. He fought in the war. Then he headed a kibbutz in the 1950s, and then went to the Aspen Center for Music in the 1950s, his first trip to the US, and was discovered as a brilliant choral conductor.

I feel like I’ve stumbled upon something that wasn’t in your bio. What is his name?

David: Abraham Kaplan. He was the director of choral music at Juilliard for many years and was Leonard Bernstein’s choral director at the New York Philharmonic.

When you listen to a Bach Cantata do you hear the math in its symmetric form?

Kaplan: No, I just like the music

Levinson: In our film, though, Fabiola talks about music in science a little bit.

She’s a remarkable character. She’s one of the big guns, and it’s so rare to have a woman in science at all, let alone a top macher at a major thing like this.

Levinson: An amazing woman. And, tiny. But is so respected.

Kaplan: And really understands both the practical, experimental side of things and can also talk to the theorists.

So the next beam is 2015. You guys gonna be there? You need to be in the room?

‘For this film, we had 450 hours of footage mushed down to 90 minutes’

Kaplan: No. I mean, for this film, we had 450 hours of footage mushed down to 90 minutes. What I’ve learned about film is you record everything you can. You try to record the truth, but you never get quite the truth because there’s a camera there.

Well, there’s your Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle…

Kaplan: An analogy that is very apt, yes. So, you have all this footage, then you try to chip it away and sculpt a story and it becomes even more artificial. Then you add music and tighter cuts, and you say “well, this was really two hours later, but we’ll make it seem like it was two seconds later.”

Then you get a guy like Walter Murch, a legendary Oscar winner who worked on “Apocalypse Now” and “THX 1138” and he’s your editor. Now, how the hell did you get him?

Levinson: I’ve known him for 25 years. When I was just starting working in film as a technician, but I had my doctorate in physics, and he took to me because he wanted to talk about string theory. I worked with him on “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and we became friends and he was very encouraging when I started making my own films. Both he and I had only ever worked on fiction films. So I showed him my assembly of this in 2012.

I imagine he took a significant pay cut for this, as a labor of love. Paid in particles?

Levinson: He was excited about the project. And he having not done documentary before, we just approached it like a regular film.

Were there movies you watched or referenced? “Apollo 13”?

Levinson: Not really. There aren’t too many movies that do science in a very good way. When I spoke to cinematographers and I asked them what documentaries that they liked that were about science, they could never come up with any. There are very few. “The Right Stuff” was a little bit of a model. And this was gratifying, because we had a screening recently and the director of “The Right Stuff,” Philip Kaufman, he came up to me after and said “reminds me of ‘The Right Stuff.’” So that was a model for me – can we capture the excitement but get everyone focused on the science.

Next projects for you guys? David, you’re going back to Johns Hopkins to look at numbers.

Kaplan: Yeah, back to physics.

Levinson: I’m looking at adapting a book that has some science in it, but not a documentary.

Are you guys excited for the new “Cosmos” show with Neil DeGrasse Tyson? Hey, how come he didn’t show up in your movie?

Kaplan: We wanted to show something different. We didn’t want to explain physics, we wanted you to live with physicists. And people who spend most of their time doing the important work of teaching science to the public aren’t actually doing any science.

That was the most diplomatic answer I’ve ever heard.

“Particle Fever” is playing at Film Forum in New York, the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles and the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, with expansions to other cities to follow.

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