Meet the Filmmaker Who Found Art in the Search for the Higgs Boson

Mark Levinson left particle physics for films, and this is his contribution to the science.

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Apr 17 2014, 5:50pm
Image: CERN

At 7pm on Wednesday, as all the school field trips and vacationing families were being politely shuffled out of the Science Museum in London, another group of people were quietly streaming in, collecting in the Museum’s current “Collider” exhibit ahead of an IMAX screening of Particle Fever, the newly released documentary about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. 

In the film, director Mark Levinson tracks the decades-long pursuit of the Higgs boson, the last missing piece of the Standard Model necessary to explain why matter has mass—and also, as the physicists in the film almost fearfully posit, to maintain that there is any order in the universe. The film captures everything from the first flipping of the switch to the devastating breakdown of the machine in 2008, up to the first collision of protons at nearly the speed of light, and the final discovery of the Higgs in July 2012. 

But Levinson—who has a PhD in particle physics and has worked in the film industry for the last thirty years—has managed to make a science documentary that feels almost nothing like a science documentary. With no narration, he instead tells the story through a motley crew of theoretical and experimental physicists, who are respectively shown scribbling on chalkboards in laboratories and tying cables in hard hats in Geneva. There’s a slight tension between the two groups, though their aims are the same. The result is surprisingly personal, and raises the stakes from a physics problem to a very human one. 

I met up with Levinson after the screening to chat about how he made the film.

Motherboard: How did you manage to make a documentary about science that doesn’t feel at all like a science documentary? Were you inspired by any other films?
Mark Levinson: When I was first thinking about the film and just trying to think of any other science documentaries that did anything interesting, Nostalgia for the Light is one of the few I could think of—and it’s not even totally a science film—but it’s what I was aspiring to. It’s much more contemplative and philosophical.

Part of the way you did that in the film was through getting the scientists to really open up, zoom out, and share their grandiose views on our place in the universe. How did you get scientists to share that with you?
You know, among themselves, they don’t talk philosophically that much. But they all think about it.  If you give them the opportunity, and ask them the right questions, it turns out they’re really into it. 

Image: Myrna Suarez

But I think it was a combination of things that brought that out in the film. Partly, it was my physics background. They’d never had a person trying to film them who actually had a PhD in physics, so they knew they could speak to me in that language, and they knew that I understood why they were doing what they were doing in the first place. And then I think it was also just the persistence: I just kept going back for more. People come in all the time to film stuff or report stories at CERN, but they come in for a couple of days, get what they want, and then go off. I would spend weeks there sometimes, over a period of six years. After a while, some people thought I worked there. 

How did the project get started?
David Kaplan is a theorist at Johns Hopkins, and he was telling all of his family and friends that this giant machine was going to turn on and that it was going to be amazing and change everything—and so somebody finally told him that he should find some way to record it. I heard about it because I was in the fiction world at the time and was presenting a script to a bunch of investors, and someone told me about this giant experiment someone wanted to film, and that no one knew if it was going to work out. I thought this chance to use my narrative skills to tell this really interesting science story was really attractive. David wanted to capture something that felt authentic, and I could see that this could potentially be a dramatic film. 

How much footage did you have in the end? 
Roughly 500 hours. But then we gave everyone little HDV cameras to have some more confessional, personal bits, and then we also realized we could use this to fill in some of the physics so it felt like these characters are just talking to you, rather than some omniscient narrator explaining everything. And then CERN itself has an extensive media department that’s been filming 16mm films since the 1960s—it’s amazing. Somebody was cutting films together and overlaying them with jazz; there was another one that was this awesome sci-fi thing that was playing with horror and was really funny actually. Now they’ve developed it and it’s become more sophisticated, so I could count on them to get tons of footage for me as well. And then there are the archives! So when I say 500 hours, that’s what I looked at. I could have looked at more, but I’m human.

Why did you leave physics in the first place? 
It was not a good time for particle theory—it was sort of stuck at the time. I was actually extremely theoretical, to the point that I almost didn’t know any experimentalists. Even the LHC would have seemed too practical. What really appealed to me was the beauty of the mathematics and the abstraction. It was almost like pursuing art, and then it was around that time that I actually discovered art as well. 

Image: PF Productions

While I was at Berkeley I started going to see opera, music, and especially films. I started noticing that there are certain parallels in terms of what the goal and drives of these pursuits are, which is that we’re trying to represent the world around us. In physics, you use mathematics, but you’re trying to come up with a representation that simplifies, unifies, and gives you insight into the physical world. And then I discovered that in art, you’re also doing that: You’re trying to represent the world in a certain way that helps you understand our place in it. And at that time, I thought art had more of a future for me than particle physics. So it was really that I developed another passion, not that I became disenchanted with physics. 

In the end with filming Particle Fever, you managed to have the perfect story arc, from the initial failures to the eventual success, but that was all left up to chance. What if none of that had happened?
Well we were making a film anyways, that was for sure. After I got over the initial shock of the accident and thinking we might not be making a film anymore, then I realized we might actually be making an even better film. But we really didn’t know what the end would be—we were filming an experiment!

How did you deal with the problem of scale in the film?
It is sort of ironic isn’t it? You’re asking the biggest questions, and you need to see the smallest things, and it requires the biggest machine ever built to study it. Part of it was having shots of the five-story high superconducting magnets, and then just showing the geography of the area—what a 17-mile loop really looks like. The animations helped to bring to life everything that’s invisible to the naked eye.

You talk surprisingly a lot about art for a film that’s about physics. You even end with talking about the Werner Herzog film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the first human cave drawings in southern France. Why did you make that such a focus?
It was extremely conscious. It was my life in some sense: I had gone from physics to art. I wanted the film to end with something bigger than just physics, and that’s what it’s all about—it’s all about the context, which is that this is a human pursuit. 

Was there any point while you were filming where you sort of missed that world, and—
Wondered if I made the right choice? You know, the very first time I went to CERN, the cafeteria is a very special place there. It’s an incredible international mix, and everyone’s relaxing, but they’re also really casually talking about physics. The theorists often all go to lunch together, and the first time I went with them I did have this really weird flash like, wow, I could have been here in exactly the same way, except I would have been here as a physicist talking in my natural habitat.

But in the end, I actually feel I made the right choice. I think that I may have more impact on physics with this film than I may have actually had in physics. Even just from an archival point of view, we captured one of the most unique moments of discovery in our lifetime. This is my contribution to physics.