For the uninitiated

If you have ever heard of the Higgs boson aka the God particle, which was the big story that made front-page news back in the summer of 2012,  this documentary follows the numerous physicists and similarly-disciplined science professionals who have spent their careers working to unravel the secrets of our universe at the quantum level.

Now that you’re all caught up…

Up front I will let you know there’s no way to write this review without dropping some serious science on y’all; then again, I am a mad scientist so… The story takes place (mainly)  in Switzerland at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which broke ground back in the mid-1980s. Theoretical physicist Dave Kaplan (USA) begins by giving us a break down about what makes the LHC experiment so fundamentally profound, and it’s really what makes science so profound: it takes everyone! Professional scientists from nations that are considered mortal enemies of one another politically can come together with political differences cast aside in a principle very similar to leave your problems at the door. Iranians, Turks, Italians, U.S. natives, Jordanians, and so many other nationalities are involved with this experiment.  Science, and the hallmark of discovery for that matter, doesn’t care about our history with one another.

Kaplan provides a fantastic breakdown of how the LHC works including a revelation that would make Al Gore turn red: the world wide web (that www prefix we put in front of most websites) was actually invented at CERN (from English: the European Center for Nuclear Research) for the purposes of spreading the load of data the LHC churns out, and that load is in the exabytes!! What was invented here in the United States was the first pair of networked computers that would become known as the internet, a DARPA invention — nay Gore (at least not on his own). For the non-math nerds one exabyte is one quintillion (1018) bytes, or one billion gigabytes. In fact Texas almost had an LHC of its own, but that was shot down by politics and a fundamental disconnect with the fact that these experiments are not meant for military or commercial endeavors — bummer. However, to justify the experiments in the first place some sort of answer has to be provided to justify the costs of this thing. As Kaplan explains there are two answers as to what the LHC is about: the one the public wants to hear (the need to simulate what matter was like within fractions of a second to mere minutes following the big bang), and the reason the physicists really want it (particle physics is believed to tell the story of the universe at a fundamental level). Upon getting challenged by an accountant/economist about what the LHC can return on investment Kaplan goes on to make another solid point that this kind of science, while very costly (fun fact: the LHC cost approximately  €5 billion to build), may well not return any amount of finance. His example was the discovery of radio waves, which are a kind of radiation. We didn’t know that when we first discovered them because we hadn’t invented radios yet, but the point still holds. Sometimes you have to spend the money to make these gargantuan experiments so you can learn more about the fundamental nature of the universe. Anyone who works at SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) will likely attest to that truth.

It was discovered centuries ago that all matter, as we know it, is made up of atoms. Ironically, atom comes from the Greek meaning “indivisible.” They were correct up until the 1930s when fundamentally smaller particles than atoms were being discovered on an average of a weekly to daily basis. Today, we have the standard model of particle physics that breaks down how the discovered particles work with each other.

After Kaplan we get to hear from other physicists, and what piqued their  interest to go to work at CERN. Monica Dunford (USA) is a post-doc who got to be there for the “first run” of the accelerator. We get a very interesting breakdown on the differences between the theorist and experimentalist. Theorists are much like they sound; they’re the ones scribbling Feynman diagrams and these terribly complex mathematics equations that go way beyond the Pythagorean theorem many of us were taught in high school. The equations getting scribbled on the chalk boards of the theoreticians are more like a mixture of Greek (not to be confused with me saying, “It’s all greek to me,”) and some numbers here and there, but much of math was invented by the Greeks during the Hellenistic period. However, as Dunford explains, it’s the experimentalists who do the field work of what the theoreticians scribble in chalk on black boards. Another point Dunford makes is the importance of not getting lost in what the theoreticians say; field work is a must to ensure one has a grounded view of reality —  I wanted to hug her for saying that. Besides, let’s be real: how many of us love science for the experiments versus for writing abstract equations?

So how does the LHC work? What both the theoretical and experimental physicists are doing is essentially smashing protons together. In the show’s case the analogy used was smashing two cars together to figure out what they’re made of; naturally we do not have to do that since cars were designed by man; however, the atom and its constituent parts were not. Thus the only real way to know what makes up protons is by smashing them together at enormous velocities, as in “almost to the speed of light,” according to Dunford. Once the two beams of protons have reached their target speed while running counter to each other they are then directed by the collider’s 17 mile ring to literally smash into each other. The LHC collects the data of the crash at four points, which are all separate experiments working in convergence.

The four experiments are ATLAS, LHCb, CMS, and ALICE (pronounced Ah-lease); Dunford works directly for the ATLAS experiment, which amounts to a 7-story camera whose sole purpose is to take a snap-shot of all the collisions, and there are several, as in billions. Within the collisions the physicists hope the ultra-elusive Higgs boson, which was proposed in the 1960s by Dr. Peter Higgs, will make its raw debut. In short, the Higgs boson is the very particle which gives all other particles (including electrons) mass.

Yet, past all the physics and huge terms associated with quanta, one of my favorite parts was the mega-awful Hip-hop session that starts at just about 33:34. When I say awful I don’t mean the melody, but more in the vein of Whose Line Is It Anyway. When you have that many type-A personalities crunching data the way these guys do any distraction is welcome! Also was the negative publicity that surrounded the first run. I remember many rumors because even author Dan Brown described the hysteria in his book Angels & Demons when they are about to switch on the accelerator there are numerous reports that it would cause a micro black hole that would engulf the world. As someone who’s read in science that’s a hilarious misconception!

This show is very well shot, edited, and contains a great amount of information between both the quantum and astronomical realms. No actors only real scientists, and the real miracle-workers of CERN. The science is broken down to a lay-enough extent that even if you have only bare made it into high school you could still keep up with this show.


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