“Particle Fever”: They blinded us with science

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“Particle Fever” is now streaming on Netflix. Not rated, 1:39, three and a half stars out of four.

I used to think “Real Genius” was just a silly broad comedy from the 1980s. Then I saw “Particle Fever.”

The immensely entertaining documentary is ostensibly about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the so-called “God Particle,” which is plenty of material for a movie on its own since it concerns, you know, life, the universe and everything.

But director Mark Levinson smartly has the heady scientific principles delivered by some funny and fascinating super-geniuses, each with their own reasons for delving into the mysteries of the universe. To feel the suspense as the researchers fire up the collider for its first test is riveting enough. But it’s hearing one of the researchers, an enthusiastic young woman who seems to be in constant motion both physically as well as mentally, enthuse “We destroyed that shit!” afterwards that makes “Particle Fever” something special.

The collider is aptly named, a 19-mile circular tunnel in Switzerland built for hurling particles at each other at high rates of speed, in the hopes that new particles can be discovered. In particular, they’re hunting for the Higgs particle, nicknamed the “God Particle” because of the theory that it’s the central pivot point around which all the other ones are built.

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Using colorful graphics that look inspired by fusion-jazz album covers, “Fever” does a good job laying down the basics of the science and the competing theories. One, the “multiverse,” posits that there are an infinite number of universes, most of which don’t work because the variables aren’t quite right, and we just happen to be in the working one. The other claims that there is a grand design stretching out into infinity that we just can’t wrap our brains around yet. It’s “random” vs. “order.”

Much like Errol Morris’ documentary version of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” “Particle Fever” is just as interested in the thinkers as the thoughts. The characters aren’t hyper-nerds – fine, aren’t JUST hyper-nerds – but really intriguing characters.

Most of all, “Particle Fever” is a celebration of uncertainty and discovery in an age when too many people across the board cling to their beliefs like life rafts. The experiments bring forth an explosion of new data that rocks some theories, obliterates others and suggests new ones. And the theorists don’t just accept this – heck, they’re giddy about being proven wrong.

As one puts it, “All my models have been pretty much proved invalid. That’s really cool.”

 

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