A description of “Particle Fever” — Mark Levinson’s mind-blowing new documentary — must grapple with some issues of scale. This is a modest, compact movie about the largest imaginable subject: the structure of the cosmos.
It tells the story of an enormous project, involving decades of labor, hundreds of millions of dollars and miles of Swiss real estate, devoted to finding something almost immeasurably small: the Higgs boson, a subatomic morsel believed by physicists to hold the key to understanding the universe. (It’s sometimes called “the God particle.”)
The experience of watching the film can be vertiginous: You toggle between the tiny and the infinite, between eternity and the real time of the recent past.
The Higgs particle is named for Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who first posited its existence in 1964. (He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics last year.) It has a central role in what physicists call the Standard Model, a comprehensive account of, well, just about everything.
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The search for the particle itself led to the construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN — also called the European Organization for Nuclear Research — near Geneva, where much of the action in “Particle Fever” takes place, in the years leading up to a 2012 breakthrough.
Much of the background is explained by David Kaplan, a physicist and producer of the film. Kaplan helped commission Levinson (and also Walter Murch, the visionary editor of “Apocalypse Now” and “The English Patient”) to translate science into cinema, and he proves an able and amiable guide.
The physics that Kaplan and his colleagues practice is forbiddingly complex, comprehensible to most of the people in the film and to very few outside it. But his impromptu lectures and some nicely animated graphics make the basic issues reasonably clear, and delightfully dramatic.
Even if you recall (or Google) newspaper articles from 2012, when CERN made headlines, you may still hold your breath at the climax of “Particle Fever.” I won’t spoil anything, but I can hardly wait for the sequel.