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Particle Fever
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3 Stars - Good
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Mpaa Rating
Directed By
Mark Levinson
Run Time
1 hour 39 minutes
Martin Aleksa, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos, Monica Dunford
Theatre Release
September 29, 2013 by Abramorama / BOND360

Could Paul have known?

Could Saul of Tarsus, blind about God for decades, blinded by God for three days, really see the invisible? Once those scales fell from his eyes, could he see the unseen?

He wrote that "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse" (Romans 1:20).

We read that verse and think of the grand, the majestic, the literally awesome. How can one look at the Himalayas or the rain forest or the cosmos and not see a Creator?

But could Paul have been talking about something substantially smaller?

Could Paul have possibly known about . . . particle physics?

Calorimeter inside the ATLAS detector Image: ATLAS Experiment / CERN

Calorimeter inside the ATLAS detector

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say, Nah. No way. They didn't even know about germs yet, much less molecules, atoms, and the less-than-microscopic matter that makes it all up. So Paul's off the hook.

But what about today's physicists, especially those who have observed such things, acknowledged their complexity, and marveled at their intricate design? What about those scientists who have truly found the matter that matters most? Are they "without excuse"?

What about those who have actually seen the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle"? If you've seen the "God particle," have you seen God?

Such questions aren't asked overtly in the fascinating new documentary Particle Fever, but they certainly linger, appropriately enough, just beyond sight. The film follows a handful of world-renowned physicists as they aim to prove the existence of the Higgs boson by smashing zillions of protons into one another at faster than light speed.

The Higgs boson ("boson" is another word for "particle") has theoretically been around for a half a century. Literally theoretically. A British physicist named Peter Higgs proposed its existence in 1964, suggesting that such a thing was necessary for, in essence, holding things together. That is, holding all things together. In physics speak, which I don't pretend to understand, the Higgs boson explains "why some fundamental particles have mass when the symmetries controlling their interactions should require them to be massless, and why the weak force has a much shorter range than the electromagnetic force." (If that excites you, then read the Wikipedia entry from which I stole that quote.)

Fast forward to the 21st century, when physicists from round the world congregate, like so many random particles, in Geneva, Switzerland, at CERN, the world's largest physics lab. CERN hosts a massive accelerator, where they smash those protons together so they'll break up into little bits . . . including, theoretically, the Higgs boson.

Fabiola Gianotti in the ATLAS control room, March 29, 2010Image: ATLAS Experiment / CERN

Fabiola Gianotti in the ATLAS control room, March 29, 2010

That's mainly what Particle Fever is about — following that process, telling the story through the eyes of six physicists who are so geeky giddy about the whole thing that you can't help but smile. (A couple of them even seem normal enough to have a conversation with; mind you, just a couple. But the others' nerdiness is part of the film's charm.)

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