Berkeley physics PhD takes “Particle Fever” to the big screen

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, Media Relations March 14, 2014

Mark Levinson’s life has come full circle.

As a UC Berkeley graduate student in the early 1980s, he worked on his PhD in theoretical physics while hanging out at the campus’s Pacific Film Archive, projecting and screening movies.

Film changed his life, and instead of using his PhD to pursue a career in academia or research, Levinson began working as a script writer, a sound editor (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley) and now the director of a powerful and highly praised documentary, “Particle Fever,” opening in Bay Area theaters today (Friday, March 14).

The film revisits Levinson’s original love, physics, and it takes audiences deep into the search for the so-called “God particle,” the Higgs boson. The New York Times called the documentary “mind boggling,” while the Los Angeles Times called it “smashingly captivating.”

“I am totally surprised,” Levinson said this week while paying a visit to the physics department. “It has hit a nerve.”

March 14 premiere

Levinson is in town to promote the movie, which premiered last week in New York and Los Angeles and opens today in the Bay Area and the rest of the country. He will appear tonight at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinema to answer questions after the 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. showings. At the latter, he will be joined by Academy Award winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocolyse Now, The English Patient), who worked with Levinson on the film, and two UC Berkeley theoretical physicists, Lawrence Hall and Yasunori Nomura, who appear briefly in the movie.

“We intended the movie to be accessible to everyone, but we really expected it to appeal to specialized audiences,” said Levinson, who also coproduced the movie with Johns Hopkins University physicist and UC Berkeley grad David E. Kaplan. “I never thought that a movie about particle physics would go mainstream.”

What makes the movie so compelling, he says, is the drama of the search for a particle, the Higgs boson, that could explain why the universe has mass. Arcane as this may sound, thousands of scientists spent billions of dollars to build a ring outside Geneva 17 miles around – the Large Hadron Collider – to accelerate protons to nearly the speed of light in order to smash them together and find the Higgs. Levinson focused on one experiment, ATLAS, that combed through the debris from these collisions to find a handful of Higgs bosons that were announced to worldwide acclaim on July 4, 2012.

Through a roller coaster ride of equipment failures and false starts, Levinson focuses on six very human and captivating characters, including Berkeley PhD and former professor Nima Arkani-Hamed, a theoretical physicist now at the Institute for Advanced Study. Levinson sets up a tension between experimentalists, exemplified by Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti, and theorists like Arkani-Hamed, as well as a contest between advocates of a multiverse, such as Arkani-Hamed, and his mentor, Stanford’s Savas Dimopoulos, who favors an alternative theory, supersymmetry.

“For many years, I harbored the hope that I could find some project that could weave together the two seemingly disparate strands of my life,” Levinson said in an earlier interview. “The start-up of the Large Hadron Collider provided the perfect combination of both a profound scientific and human endeavor.”

Uplifting

If that all sounds confusing, Levinson doesn’t want you to worry.

“It all comes down to a good story with good characters, and in the end, it’s uplifting,” he said.

Mark Levinson and Lawrence Hall

Director Mark Levinson with UC Berkeley physicist Lawrence Hall, who appears in Levinson’s new documentary, ‘Particle Fever.’ Robert Sanders photo.

The documentary’s East and West Coast premieres demonstrated that it resonated not only with scientists – one scientist in the audience tearfully exclaimed, “this really shows what my life is like” – but also members of the public. After the premieres, most audience members stayed for his Q&A, Levinson said, and many lingered outside the theaters afterwards discussing the film.

Levinson has nothing but praise for his UC Berkeley mentor, Geoffrey Chew, now a professor emeritus of physics, for inspiring him and pushing him to complete his PhD (’83) even though it was obvious to Chew that Levinson had become enamored of film.

“I am really gratified to Geoff, but Berkeley also sent me away from physics; it is where I found my place as a filmmaker,” he said.

Levinson is now working with educators to turn the film into a middle school curriculum that will show the true excitement of scientific research as well as the leadership roles played by women like Gianotti.

“We hope it is going to be groundbreaking in the way we view science and scientists,” he said.

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