Even the Large Hadron Collider,” Mark Levinson told us during his visit to our New York studio, “would have been too practical for me.” He was referring to the atom smasher sitting about 300 feet under the French-Swiss border, where the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced on July 4, 2012, and which is the subject of his documentary, Particle Fever. Levinson was a theoretical physicist before he became a filmmaker—a very theoretical physicist. “The physics I was interested in was almost art,” Levinson told us.
It wasn’t long before his focus became actual art, and he embarked on a career as a film editor, director, and producer. While most of his early work was on fiction rather than documentary, the confluence of his doctoral training and passion for film makes Particle Fever a remarkable point in his career: “I’ve made my film,” he said before our interview.
And quite the film it is. Levinson and his colleagues were there for the key moments of one of the signature experiments of the past century, the result of a 10,000-person collaboration: first beam, the accident that delayed the science by 14 months, first collision, and the Higgs announcement. The film challenges us to think both about what big science can tell us about the world, about how it’s done, and about who does it.
One of the physicists in your documentary, Nima Arkani-Hamed, made a large bet on the LHC data. What was it?
What’s your favorite Arkani-Hamed anecdote?
How did the theorists in your film, like Savas Dimopoulos and Riccardo Barbieri, react to having decades of their work hinge on a single experiment?
Savas Dimopoulos flew all the way to Switzerland for the Higgs announcement and then was late for the meeting and got locked out. How did that happen?
Were you surprised at the cultural differences between theorists and experimentalists?
Are scientists and artists as different from one another as people think?
What are the parallels between film-making and physics?
How interested in art were the characters in your documentary?
You added music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the scene when first collisions were measured. What were you aiming for?
You also used images of cathedral windows in your documentary. Do you see the LHC as a kind of cathedral?
There’s a statue of the Hindu God, Shiva the “Destroyer,” on the grounds of CERN. Did you want to connect it to the discovery that the Higgs particle might be unstable?
Are you comfortable with the Higgs being referred to as the “God Particle?”
CERN carefully managed their relationship with the press. Is this normal for big science?
What’s next for you?