"Particle Fever," a documentary about physicists and the particle theories they love, captures a compelling and dramatic episode of modern science. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat and unabashed fan of the film, is hoping the movie will not only make science fun, but make funding it fun as well.
“When people are excited about a thing, it makes you want to pay attention to it,” Lipinski said of the story of the experimental and theoretical physicists gearing up for the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, which in 2012 shed light on the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle" and a sort of holy grail in the physics world.
Lipinski, who introduced the film at its Washington premiere last month, has been tracking the progress of the film for years, dating back to contact with friends and colleagues at Stanford University's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Lipinski got his master's degree in engineering from Stanford. "The whole idea was to get people engaged in making it a kind of reality show, showing that these scientists are real people," he said. Along the way, the scientists just happen to have made one of the most significant scientific discoveries in history.
Lipinski said it was "great to see a movie like this," in the fight to better fund scientific research. He is the third-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
David Kaplan, a theoretical physicist at Johns Hopkins University and a producer of the movie, said, "Science doesn't have the level of constituency of other issues. It's the first thing to fall off the truck." And while Kaplan said the movie could be helpful in showing the value of funding science, that wasn't the point of making the film.
"I wanted the film to be made because I just thought, my world is so beautiful, and is such a great example of the tenacity for solving big problems, and it's inspiring, and I just love the people around me. ... Can I share this amazing world with everyone and let everyone experience it, see how beautiful it is, and how inspiring humans can be, in this extremely esoteric subject," Kaplan said. "So the advocacy was never there to politicians; it was directly to the public," he said.
"There's suddenly this realization that we have this film, and it could be the greatest evangelist for why people should do science," said Mark Levinson, the film's director and a physicist himself. "I would love to show this to Congress. They just don't see science in this way ... how compelling this is," he said.
And as scientists fire up the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, to further study the Higgs boson next year, "we will certainly be following them," Levinson said. "It just shows that this is a world we should celebrate, take pride in," he said.
Washingtonians have the opportunity to see what Levinson calls "epochal moment in scientific discovery" in two D.C. theaters (a somewhat rare event for a documentary film) — at the E Street Cinema in downtown D.C. and at the Avalon up by Chevy Chase.
One challenge might be to get Congress's two physicists — Reps. Bill Foster, D-Ill, and Rush D. Holt, D-N.J. — to check it out. Neither had seen the film at press time, although Lipinski said he would work on that. "I will talk to Bill," he said, readying himself for an engineer-to-scientist one-on-one.