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posted: 3/13/2014 5:00 AM

'Particle' science makes for a doc that feels like a film

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  • The real star of the documentary "Particle Fever" is the most expensive scientific experiment created: a super collider for smashing protons together.

      The real star of the documentary "Particle Fever" is the most expensive scientific experiment created: a super collider for smashing protons together.

  • Video: "Particle Fever" trailer

 
 

You don't normally think of documentaries as being material for a film franchise, but the smart and ultimately suspenseful "Particle Fever" certainly qualifies.

It possesses a wonderful mystery -- the search for the elusive "god particle" by physicists -- and a benign rivalry between two scientific factions -- the theorists and the experimentalists -- amid the backdrop of what appears to be the greatest 007 movie set ever built.

The "plot" involves the most expensive experiment ever conducted: about 10,000 scientists from 100 countries armed with more than 100,000 computers operating a super collider that, by smashing protons into each other, might reveal the existence of the Higgs boson, the particle that holds all matter together.

Director Mark Levinson holds a doctorate in particle physics. Producer David Kaplan teaches theoretical particle physics. You'd think this might be some stuffy academic report. Sometimes it is. Yet, they translate most of the scientific jargon down to our level without dumbing it all down.

"Particle Fever" has an abysmally soft start. (In journalism, this would be called a weak lead paragraph.) But the narrative builds momentum as "Particle Fever" whisks us from 2008 through 2012 when the scientific world anxiously waits for the results of the experiment.

At stake: whether the Higgs boson can be found, and if so, will it answer the question: Is the universe really a "multiverse" ruled by chaos and chance? Or is the universe organized and bound together by "super symmetry"?

If the experiment can recreate the conditions that existed right after the Big Bang occurred, the answers might be there.

This ambitious doc introduces us to a United Nations cast of scientists working on this project. The most effusive and audience-friendly speaker, Monica Dunford, hails from America and gives us our cues for when we should be excited about something and why.

Not everything in "Particle Fever" comes in mentally digestible bites. The filmmakers probably figured the film would attract viewers willing to tackle something more challenging than "300: Rise of an Empire."

Nonetheless, this doc has a clear beginning, middle and end, and -- like a Hobbit movie -- leaves open the possibility for an additional chapter.

Are you ready for "Particle Fever II: Return of the Higgs Boson"?

"Particle Fever" opens at the Music Box in Chicago and the Naperville Showplace 16. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. 99 minutes. ★ ★ ★

• Dann Gire's Reel Life column runs Fridays in Time out!

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