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Physicist Bliss: First Pi Day, Next ‘Particle Fever’ Movie

Physicists have a lot to cheer about these days. First comes the mathematical/pastry part of the equation. Then comes the celluloid/digital celebration of their efforts.  

On Friday, they can bring pie to their colleagues to celebrate Pi Day (3/14, get it?), an event both of Congress’ resident physicists did when Reps. Bill Foster, D-Ill., and Rush Holt, D-N.J., brought home-baked goods in to celebrate that most charming of mathematical constructs . And starting March 21 in D.C. and Baltimore, they can share the story of one of their field’s biggest accomplishments, the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in Geneva, Switzerland, at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, by taking in Mark Levinson’s documentary “Particle Fever.”  

The movie, which has been screening all over the country, including a show in Washington this week that Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., helped shepherd, details the recent culmination of decades of work, experimentation and construction of the LHC, which in 2012 succeeded in discovering the elusive Higgs, the so-called god particle that physicists have only been able to theorize about until the LHC’s grand experiment.  

Reminded that March 14 was Pi Day, Levinson, who in addition to being a filmmaker has a PhD. in elemental particle theory, laughed and said, “That is great. I appreciate it on behalf of all the pi appreciators, all the people that have memorized pi to extraordinary lengths.” All kidding aside, Levinson is busy showing “Particle Fever” around the world (Friday is San Francisco, Sunday is Geneva at CERN and the Cineglobe Film Festival, for instance) and he’s been kind of blown away at the reception. “My hope was that we would make a dramatic, compelling film that would show this in a way that nobody had seen and would have a certain built-in audience. But we weren’t quite sure what the impact would be on a much wider scale. And the fact that it has garnered so much enthusiasm, and now people are seeing it in some sense as a possible, sort of, watershed film about the process of science,” he said, was something he and his team never anticipated.  

The film’s representation of how the world’s elite physicists contribute to and observe the Higgs discovery is one that, regardless of your appreciation/fear of the field, is indeed a compelling one.  

Levinson sees both physics and filmmaking as kindred spirits, a decision that helped ease his path from being a practicing theorist to a filmmaker many years ago. “In some sense, it represented the epitome of human accomplishment, that we could come up with this language, this mathematical language with incredible beauty, that was totally abstract, but somehow, actually, had a truthfulness to it that it actually explained things in the natural world. … It was not a great time for particle physicists, and at the same time I actually discovered that there were other endeavors that in some sense were a parallel to the process, that, in various arts, what are you doing? You are also trying to come up with a representation of the world around you. Using music or poetry or film, you try to come up with a representation that helps us understand how the world works. Our place in the world. Our future in the world. There was this sort of aesthetic aspect to both that I found very interesting.”

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