The Unknown Known
One of my heroes in film-making and life is Walter Murch. His past work as a sound designer directly influenced my decision to go into that field and his work as an editor and all-around renaissance man has expanded my understanding of film and its possibilities to move the emotions through its mechanisms. For the past couple of years, he's been working on a documentary about the Cern super-collider with documentarian Mark Levinson. The result, Particle Fever, is one of the better documentaries about science—and hard science—that has been produced in many years.
It concerns the construction of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, designed to accelerate and collide two proton particle beams with the intention of seeing what would happen—what the resulting collision would produce, then analyze it in the hopes of finding an essential bonding agent in the sub-strata of molecules, the Higgs-Boson, the so-called "God particle." "So-called" because that is the media term for the Higgs-Boson, a way of reducing large complicated ideas to the level of imbecility for mass-consumption. Higgs-Boson is merely a theoretic idea for what should be there, but its properties are unknown, and only by the detection of the energy it generates in these insane collisions can we known what's supposed to be there could be (like the astronomers who calculated unseen bodies by the gravitational effect they had on the seen).
Culled from 500 hours of footage during the construction (where the delicate fitting of huge components is sped up so we can see its movement, turning the humans into skittering insects), interviews with theorists and scientists alike, many via Skype, and during the operations that buzz like Mission Control at a lunar launch—only geekier—and extraordinary graphics by the firm MK12, Particle Fever is, itself, an amazing undertaking from the sheer volume of material used to tell a story of such complexity and intricacy, while still giving the big picture a sense of wonder and the results a certain irony. There's a lot of technical jargon being tossed about, but the stories of the individual theorists and experiment technicians are personal and involving, a combination of deep thought and and deep feeling, of lifetimes dedicated to theory coming to fruition...or for naught...and of careers ending over the findings, but the work never stopping.
The Universe keeps expanding, after all. Why shouldn't the process of understanding it?