I saw Particle Fever the other night. My movie buddy didn’t like it as much as I did: she thought the music was intrusive, and she didn’t learn anything new about the science. I did— I learned that Supersymmetry and the Multiverse were mutually exclusive theories, which had somehow failed to sink in even after all the popsci articles and books I’ve read on the subject— but it didn’t matter. The movie wasn’t just about the science anyway.
It was about the scientists.
If anything, I should have had more to complain about than Leona. Having once been a scientist myself, having hung around with scientists most of my adult life, there wasn’t much the film could tell me on that front that I didn’t already know first-hand. But it was just so goddamn refreshing to see a movie convey some sense of what it’s like to be in science, the giddy, kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of discovering stuff. Even if none of my colleagues ever discovered anything so fundamental as the so-called God Particle. Even if the most I ever did was learn how to read the sun and the wind, and predict when a hauled-out harbor seal would overheat enough to wriggle back into the water.
Particle Fever conveys the intensity of the pursuit, the joy of the discovery, better than any other film I’ve seen. You can’t watch post-doc Monica Dunford— think Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck with a PhD, a hardbody cyclist and rower and runner given to intermittent high-energy explosions of her own— you can’t see her spread her hands and exclaim “Okay, first off— data is fucking awesome!!!!” without breaking into a big goofy grin. At least, I couldn’t.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the whole movie was the Data Orgasm Sequence. That’s what I’m calling it, anyway: the supercollider’s first successful supercollisions, particle trails blooming like fireworks across the monitors, data leapfrogging out of CERN into a thousand daisy-chained servers across the globe, experimentalists and theoreticians alike rapturous almost unto ululation— all to the strains of “Ode to Joy” blasting from the speakers at a hundred fifteen decibels. But that wasn’t the only high point. There was also the official announcement that the Higgs had been nailed, 4.9 and 5 sigma, no chance in three million that it was just a random fluke. All those people arrayed in tiered rows— in Geneva, in Princeton, at MIT and Johns Hopkins— rising to their feet in spontaneous applause, hugging, slapping each other on the back, tears in their eyes. A rapture borne of the fact that we know more now than we did then, that a central piece of the puzzle has been made to fit. That a shitload of models have just been thrown out with yesterday’s mayonnaise, and that others have been born again.
That we are beginning to understand.
I loved this movie. I loved the massive science-fictional machinery, straight out of Forbidden Planet. I loved these hard-science strangers whose souls I relate to, although I will never meet them in the flesh.
And I hated the rest of humanity, so much duller and pettier and nastier when thrown into high contrast with those happy few.
Because these people show us what we can do. Ten thousand scientists from a hundred countries, scientists from countries that are mortal enemies (Israel and Iran, come on down!), seemingly oblivious to the petty hatreds and rivalries that define so much of human existence. It boggles the mind. Thousands of people, decades of investment, billions of Euros: all devoted to a goal of simple, abstract enlightenment. Early in the film an economist (I can’t help but suspect that he might have been a deliberate audience plant, for dramatic purposes) asks one of the project leads about what possible financial return could be expected from the consumption of all these resources. After the usual recapitulation of the economic potential of basic science (“radio waves weren’t called radio waves because there were no radios; they had no economic potential when they were discovered”), the scientist resorts to concise honesty: “Possibly nothing, except understanding everything.”
We can do this. We are doing this. A few of us, anyway.
The rest— who have pretty much the same synapse count, the same computational complexity, the same potential for curiosity— the rest don’t give a shit. They’re too busy shooting schoolgirls, or throwing hissy-fits over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s set piece on evolution, or getting out the pitchforks and torches for anyone who suggests that our fossil-fuel habit might be throwing the world on its side. They’re too busy worshipping sky fairies, or insisting that the all-too-real laws of physics are somehow subordinate to the all-too-imaginary laws of Economics. They’re too busy letting their kids die of preventable diseases (although there’s at least the hint of a silver lining in that last example; if there’s any genetic component at all to intelligence, increased mortality among the children of antivaccinators might at least result in some small increase in the mean IQ of the species).
How is this possible? How can the same species encompass both such passionate intelligence and such vicious stupidity?
Of course, I’m being rhetorical here. There’s nothing unexpected about variation between individuals, nothing cryptic about distributional curves. Even the nonnormal skew of that curve, the prevalence of morons in the mix, is no great mystery. I’m not even really asking a question here. I’m just lamenting the answer.
Maybe Particle Fever is pure propaganda. After all, it’s not as though science is free of pettiness and rivalry; I haven’t forgotten that to a large extent, science depends on those things. Maybe physicists are just a little purer than the rest of us. Or maybe the old saw that Academics fight so much because so little is at stake has a corollary: When a lot is at stake, Academics don’t fight so much. And the discovery of the Higgs— yeah, that’s a lot. Possibly nothing, except understanding everything.
A reflection, for the first goddamn week of spring.