‘Particle Fever’ provides big picture of scientists studying small things

If nothing else, “Particle Fever” confirms something you’ve probably always suspected: Really brilliant physicists are almost exactly as nerdy as the average science fiction geek. Sense of humor and issues of personal style appear to be aligned on the same spectrum in both groups, as is the ability to imagine the future in a new way.

Given that reality, director Mark Levinson was probably wise to focus on the personalities working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), that huge project near Geneva. Their quirkiness allows a human portal into the science behind this massive underground experiment, which after 20 years of effort went live in 2008 and confirmed important results just last year.

The gist of the project (and I speak with absolutely zero authority on this) is to send protons around a 17-mile ring and smash them into each other at high speed. The result will reveal answers to ongoing theoretical questions about what the universe is made of, especially as regards the Higgs boson, the missing piece in the Standard Model of physics.

We get the history of the LHC, and this documentary’s cameras are there when the first tiny proton makes its first circle in September 2008. Cameras are also there a few days later, when a design flaw causes an accident that sets the experiment back by more than a year.

We are guided in this journey by a batch of physicists, from the esteemed veterans in the field to the puppydog enthusiasm of Monica Dunford, who treats the word “data” the way the average person might describe a Powerball jackpot.

All of them are pretty much unified in their anxiety over the outcome of the LHC’s evidence. It might show them the future of scientific research, or it might prove they’ve come to a $5 billion dead end. They are less worried that the experiment could cause the Earth to vanish into a black hole, an extremely unlikely (gulp) outcome.

Levinson does a good job of explaining the basis of this stuff, although one wants to know a little more about why it all matters. One possibility, that the Higgs boson would confirm that all matter isn’t in danger of falling apart at any given moment, is a welcome nugget of information.

“Particle Fever” coasts a bit with its reliance on character study, but it contains real suspense and some tantalizing glimpses into the future. It also serves as a needed reminder of the excitement of science, a practice that need not be left exclusively to nerds.

“Particle Fever” (three stars)

A suspenseful documentary about the launching of the Large Hadron Collider, the massive science project underground near Geneva that might give important information to physicists. The movie focuses on the nerdy personalities of a group of physicists involved, and captures the gist of something that is awfully tough to boil down for laymen.

Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.

Opening: Friday at the Harvard Exit.

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