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Surprising Science

“Particle Fever”: The Dramatic Search for the Higgs Boson

On July 4, 2012 a team of physicists in Switzerland announced one of the biggest discoveries in science: the Higgs boson–the “God particle” that could explain why all matter has mass. (Remember the hysteria that the Large Hadron Collider would suck the world into a man-made black hole?) The anticipation, tense hard work, and sensation that surrounded the search for the Higgs boson was captured in 500 hours of footage by physicist-turned-filmmaker David Kaplan.

“Many years ago, many, five, six, seven, eight years ago it was obvious to me and it was really obvious to my entire field–particle physics, that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] was finally the experiment that could go to the energy level where we would answer questions that we’ve been basically asking our entire careers,” Kaplan told Big Think. “We were in a state of affairs where the entire population of particle physicists were still active in the field, had never seen a discovery at this level, and we knew it was coming.”

Of course, the road to discovery was not so certain. The Large Hadron Collider could have led scientists on a very high-profile and expensive wild goose chase. Kaplan describes this uncertainty: “Does all the information we want, all the things we want to discover about how things work, are they accessible? Is that information, in a sort of goofy way of putting it, in our universe?”

In “Particle Fever,” Kaplan also tells a story of humankind’s search for meaning. “We are biased by what we measure by the fact that we’re here and we’re measuring it. That the universe, or part of the universe we’re in, has enough structure and complexity to produce humans or any sort of observer whatsoever, or at the very least planets or galaxies or stars,” he says. “So that was the sort of drama, the deep drama that was actually going on in the mid 2000s when I decided that somebody needed to record this event.  And what I knew [was that] whatever the LHC saw or didn’t see, it would inform us along those lines.  Emotionally it was going to be very dramatic no matter what.”

“Particle Fever” is in theaters now. Watch a portion of our interview with David Kaplan: 


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