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Particle physics a big draw in SF

SANTA FE – On a Tuesday night with the Winter Olympics playing on television, 791 people turned out at Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center to see a movie about particle physics.

“Only in Santa Fe!” exclaimed Jason Silverman, director of the Cinematheque at the Center for Contemporary Arts, who, together with the Santa Fe Institute’s Science on Screen series, helped bring the film for a showing here before its general release.

Mark Levinson, producer/director of “Particle Fever,” said it was the biggest audience so far for the movie, which has made the film festival rounds, including the New York Film Festival last October.

The documentary follows six scientists – representative of several thousand involved worldwide in the project – through the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Their sometimes breathless, but always thoughtful, commentary brings human interest and drama to the process of science, with its peaks of high excitement, along with the deep patience required for a project that may take decades to come to fruition.

The culmination of the film comes with Peter Higgs, a British theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner, taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes in the audience on July 4, 2012, when CERN scientists announced they detected evidence of the Higgs boson, a particle that he and others said back in the 1960s should exist to give mass to sub-atomic bits.

Levinson said he never expected that moment to be part of his movie.

When he started work on “Particle Fever,” he said, everyone told him that he might witness the discovery of a new particle – “that was the hope and dream” – but “they didn’t think they would see the Higgs while we were filming.”

It was an accident that made it possible, he said in a panel discussion after the movie. After magnets in the collider melted under the high power generated, the collider was shut down for repairs and then operated under only half power.

“That made it difficult to find a new particle,” he said, but it turned out to be ideal conditions for uncovering the Higgs.

The so-called “God particle” is explained in the movie in very understandable terms, outlining what its weight might mean for predicting whether the universe we know complies with a super-symmetry theory, or another multiverse theory that would make everything we know appear to result from a random accident.

Trained as a physicist before he moved to filmmaking a few decades ago, most often in the sound department, Levinson said his familiarity with the science helped him keep the explanations clear – partly by knowing what information was worth excluding from the film.

While he set up a duality between the two “theories of everything” to create drama, he acknowledged that other theories, such as string theory, contain components of both and could offer alternative explanations.

“Particle Fever” contained the big ideas, the beauty and excitement inherent in science – and it was careful to feature some women working in the male-dominated physics field.

“It’s a special quality we have as human beings – our search for our place in the universe,” said Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and past president of the Santa Fe Institute, who joined moderator Valerie Plame and Levison on the post-screening panel.