Particle Fever

I watched Particle Fever last night. It’s a documentary about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs Boson.

It’s staggeringly good.

Equally staggering is the scale of the physics experiment that the LHC embodies. It’s probably the largest experiment ever constructed by humans; built with a budget of 7.5 billion euros by over 10,000 scientists and engineers from more than 100 countries. The documentary easily delivers a sense of awe at the scale of the endeavour, but, more importantly by following six physicists over six years, also gives an insight into the purpose of the project and the passion of the people for the physics behind it.

Physicists fall into two camps: the theorists and the experimentalists, and both were represented in the documentary. Whilst all the featured physicists were interesting and engaging, I was particularly struck by two of them: experimentalist Monica Dunford (who came across as being exactly like Dr. Ellie Arroway, the character played by Jodie Foster, in the film Contact) and the theorist Nima Arkani-Hamed. His explanations, together with those of David Kaplan, another physicist and producer of the film, managed to make the physics clear to me, and pointed out the struggle of theories going on – supersymmetry versus multiverse – that the LHC experiments aim to resolve through discovering and understanding the Higgs Boson.

What I find fascinating is the way in which supersymmetry almost implies support for the strong Anthropic principle (the suspicion that someone/something is twiddling the knobs of the universe to fine-tune physical laws and constants so that the universe as we know it can actually exist). The Multiverse theory, on the other hand, removes the need for all this knob-twiddling, since it posits that our universe, with its particular knob settings, is just one possibility out of a myriad of alternative universes that might exist.

It was hoped that, if the Higgs Boson were to be discovered by the LHC experiments, then this would go some way to favouring one of the above opposing theories. Unfortunately, like some cosmic joke, the data that the LHC has given us about the nature of the Higgs Boson is almost exactly sitting on the fence, with neither theory being able to be declared the outright winner. This is like ascending a mountain, only to discover when you’re at the peak, that it is merely a foothill of some larger chain. If you have passion, as these physicists clearly demonstrate, this will simply act as the spur to drive you on further.

At a time when both religion and politics are increasingly demonstrating their most baleful influences on humanity, it warmed the cockles of my misanthropic old heart to see a scientific endeavour on the scale of the LHC uniting thousands in a common search for knowledge.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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