The new documentary Particle Fever, which opens today at the Music Box, recounts the opening of the Large Hadron Collider in 2008 and the events leading up to the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson (a subatomic particle first theorized in the mid-60s). For a movie so concerned with the scientific process, it’s surprisingly lively and good-humored—as I note in my capsule review, it often feels like a sports movie, steadily building excitement as the physicists come closer to realizing their goal. The film originated with David Kaplan, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who worked at the LHC. As he explains, he began documenting his experience on the project for a personal record, but gradually realized that the material might be turned into a good movie. Mark Levinson, a longtime sound editor (and former physics student), was brought in as director, and with him came Walter Murch, the renowned editor and sound mixer best known for his work with Francis Ford Coppola. Particle Fever marks the first documentary Murch has worked on—according to Kaplan, he did it out of his lifelong love of physics. Kaplan will take part in a discussion after the 7:10 PM screening tomorrow. My conversation with him is below.
Ben Sachs: You’re kind of the star of this movie.
David Kaplan: Kind of, yeah. One of them.
Was it weird going from not having any film experience to having to watch yourself all the time as you put the movie together? Did you ever find yourself thinking of yourself as a character in a film?
Well, I’ve been watching myself for years now, ever since [director Mark Levinson and I] decided to integrate clips of me in the film. But when I was in the editing room discussing the film [with Levinson and Walter Murch], I would think about myself as a character. Sometimes I’d even talk about myself in the third person, just to remind myself that it was about what audiences would see and experience.
It seems like you stand for the thousands of physicists who worked at the Large Hadron Collider. The questions you ask in the movie about the implications of the project—namely, what the discovery of Higgs boson particle will tell us about the origins of existence—I imagine those were questions many of the physicists asked.
All of that material was extracted from my normal discussions . . . you know, I was doing research as the movie was being shot. I still had papers coming out. What ended up in the movie were things that were happening live within the field [of particle physics]. And when I reported solo to the camera, it was as a physicist. I was in the thick of it, and it was important that I stayed in the thick of it.
Will every [physicist] agree with everything that I said? Absolutely not. But I was trying to capture the broad sense of the issues that were coming up in the field. One of those was whether we were going to see anything beyond the Higgs boson. Would the discovery come with a deeper picture? Or would it look like some fine-tuning of nature that plopped the Higgs where it is, and we wouldn’t get any more information? I mean more dramatic information, like the discovery of new particles.
Certainly, the more we study the Higgs itself, the more we get to learn. But there was a broad sense that either the Higgs would come with stuff or it wouldn’t, and either result had implications. Different physicists interpreted those implications differently, but the broader question was essentially there for everybody. That’s what made the LHC as dramatic as it was—and still is, really.
Having little knowledge of particle physics, I responded most to the metaphysical conversations that you and the other scientists have throughout the film. Are these conversations commonplace in your field, or did they intensify around the LHC?
The “big picture” conversations are, in some sense, distracting. The way we work is, we have leads, and with those leads, we attempt to push forward. It’s extremely rare to sit back and say, “Wow! Imagine the whole universe is like this!” That doesn’t actually help with scientific progress, even though it may feel good for a moment. But when we’re speaking to the public, that’s the context we’re working in.
We’re not overwhelmed by the context, normally. We have some pieces of the puzzle, and we’re trying to put them together and find more pieces. That’s just our job. I can’t speak for all physicists, but the people in my small part of the community don’t worry about metaphysical things. Our conversations are easy for us to have, because many of us have come to peace with the bigger questions of existence.
It seems like the humor of the movie comes from this discrepancy between how physicists really talk and how the public expects you to talk. You’re always faced with the challenge of having to make this stuff sound more dramatic . . .
. . . than it actually is to us, yeah. You know, when people push on us, asking what society is getting out of our studies, I think there’s a retreat that occurs within the scientific community. In a sense, [scientists] are still licking their wounds from the cancellation of big experiments. So, people in the older generation tend to be very cautious about their work and try to justify things constantly. There’s a lack of boldness among that generation, which is understandable, because bad things happened to them. Projects were cancelled, and in very dramatic ways.
The biggest example is the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider [which is discussed in Particle Fever]. That’s a particle collider that was being built in Texas. It was going to be 54 miles around—a factor of three bigger than the LHC. Congress cancelled its construction in 1993, after they’d dug 14 miles of tunnel and spent roughly $2 billion. And a lot of scientists had relocated to Dallas. They were doing lots of research, preparing for that Collider, and all their work became irrelevant—and not for scientific reasons, but for political reasons.
As a fraction of GDP, fundamental research [in the U.S.] has decreased almost linearly since the 1970s. That’s produced a general fear [among scientists]. “How do we talk about our work in such a way that the government will still support it?” And I think that’s limited the inspiring discussions about what the work is. I do think that the younger, invincible versions of us don’t have that fear. They talk about particle physics in the biggest possible terms.
I wanted to be fearless making this movie, in talking about the costs and the difficulties of the project and the possibility that we may not find anything. That’s what it’s like, living in the thick of it and not having to justify every incremental step.
Ironically, those incremental steps are some of the more exciting parts of the movie—when they happen, you can feel the narrative is moving forward. I presume Walter Murch had a lot to do with that propulsive quality.
It’s true. Walter is a genius, and he’s done just brilliant things on the film. It’s funny—when you’re making a documentary, you start with the real world, then you record it, but by virtue of recording it, it’s not quite right. [The subjects] are sensitive to the fact that a camera’s present, you can only capture certain moments. Then you try to edit together what you have, and it feels even more fake. So, you have to work very hard to re-create the experience through dramatic devices—compressing the chronology of events, adding music and graphics. Documentary film is actually one big lie that’s trying to get you to understand the truth.
Walter created this atmosphere that paralleled the moment-by-moment experience. So, all that dramatic tension in the movie, while it didn’t happen exactly that way, reflects a rush of feelings that went through every physicist’s mind throughout this process. It was unbelievably cool watching him work.
How long did it take Murch to edit the film, and how closely involved were you in the editing?
He did the last 15 months of editing, taking a seven-week break along the way. He also assisted with the sound mix, which is something he’s very famous for. When he started, I was there maybe once every two or three weeks. After he’d been editing for a number of months, I was there two days a week. I’d take the train or bus up to New York from Baltimore, then come back down.
Were you also teaching during this time?
Yes! It was hard as hell doing both. There were some weeks when I’d go up right after teaching a class on a Monday morning, come back Tuesday night, teach again Wednesday morning, and sometimes go back up on Thursday morning. But I’m happy with the results of all the work. I feel good about what we’re putting out there.
Do you hope the movie will increase public awareness of what physicists do?
I didn’t have any political goals at the beginning. My goal was just to share this amazing world. It was coming from a very pure place. This incredibly dramatic thing was about to happen that would be very impactful on our field, and I was afraid that nobody was going to know about it. At first I just wanted to record my experience at the LHC for historic purposes, so we could remember this time. But eventually it became clear that this could be a movie.
Later I realized that what I really wanted was a cultural transformation about how science is seen by society. Sometimes I think scientists are cordoned off from the rest of society. The popular opinion is either “They’re brilliant, but I don’t understand what they’re doing” or “They’re wasting our money.” But it’s always coming from a distance. I’d like for scientific research to be integrated into common experience. People should know at least what it’s like. That became a goal as we went along, when I realized how this could impact things.