The Inessential Necessities, by Tyler Smith
There are some that might be inclined to say that art and science are polar opposites. It’s easy to see why. One is based entirely on subjective interpretation of the world, while the other strives to discover objective fact. What Mark Levinson’s fascinating documentary Particle Fever suggests is that, though different in practice, art and science originate from the same place within humanity. Each fulfills a longing to have a deeper understanding of the world around us. And while science may be seen to be a dry, dispassionate pursuit, Levinson’s film invites us into the world of scientific discovery, and all of the excitement that it can contain.
The film essentially documents the discovery of the Higgs Boson, otherwise known as the “God Particle.” This is the particle that draws together all of the other particles that make up the physical world. Literally, it is what makes all of this possible. I’m sure any notable physicist would read my description and balk at my oversimplification. And, that’s okay. The film isn’t remarkably interested in giving us all the details of what the Higgs Boson is; it only gives us just enough information to let us know that this is a big deal. And indeed it is, as, for decades, the Higgs Boson existed only in theory. To actually have verifiable data (ah, to see the scientists’ faces light up at the word “data”) would be monumental.
At least, monumental to a point. In many ways, the discovery of this vital particle doesn’t affect our daily lives. Unless you’re a scientist- and, even then, a physicist- your life will likely continue on as normal. And so, the documentary asks, why is this so exciting? Why should we the audience be interested in this? Levinson goes out of his way to bookend the film with an acknowledgement that, though it often leads to practical application that can change the world, mere knowledge for its own sake isn’t totally necessary. But, of course, “necessary” isn’t the same as “important.”
It is our curiosity about how the world works, and our drive to find out, that keeps certain people going. To know that there are answers and that it is conceivably within our power to know and understand them is a very exciting prospect, even for somebody like me, whose scientific understanding begins and ends with the fact that there is are things called cells, and apparently a “nucleus” is involved somehow.
Thankfully, the film is able to translate the invigoration that these scientists feel by focusing in on things that the audience can more easily recognize. We get artistic imagery juxtaposed with images of particle collision and, much to our surprise, there really isn’t that much difference. We hear beautiful classical music- considered scientific itself in its illustration of symmetry and meter- playing over the vast orchestra of technicians and theorists.
And, perhaps most importantly, the filmmaker brings everything down to a human level, focusing on the feelings and backstories of those involved in the experiment. This is where the film really shines, as we see down-to-earth, relatable people telling their stories of how they first fell in love with science and discovery. Each person’s story is unique- some even profound- but they all have one thing in common: the desperate thirst for answers.
There are also a few interesting examples of people that got into physics apparently to help them make sense of a chaotic world. One such man has posited the theory of the multiverse, which has at its core an assumption of instability. While he seems fascinated by this theory, he also appears to be unnerved by it. We are treated later to a scene in which this man encounters an outdoor art installation made up of stone tiles strewn about in a seemingly random fashion. The scientist approaches the installation and starts moving the tiles around into a pattern he finds more pleasing. For lovers of art, it is a horrifying sequence, but one that makes a lot of sense for the man we’re watching. Rather than try to simply accept art that is supposedly purposeless, he chooses to shape it into something that makes more sense; creating order out of chaos, something he is better able to grasp, even if he’s not “supposed to.”
We are met with another man who tells a story of his mother reading him the Bible when he was young. When she introduced him to the idea of Heaven, he started crying, because the idea of “forever” was overwhelming to him. Even at an early age, he wanted things to end. An ending makes things much more tangible and comprehensible. He certainly has a point. For those like myself, who believe in the concept of spiritual eternity, we have made peace with the idea that some things are and always will be beyond our grasp. This man seems driven to search out the limits of our world and existence, quite possibly for the sake of his own peace of mind.
And yet it is this same man that makes the argument that science- like art- isn’t a necessary thing, strictly speaking. For humans to survive in the most basic way, we don’t need to know everything about atoms and how things are held together. But it is our inquisitive nature- the desire to know both the how and the why of things- that makes us who we are. And we are never more excited, more joyful, more essentially human than when we are on the verge of a new discovery; when our imaginations help the world make just a little bit more sense. Mark Levinson’s marvelous little film tells the story of a few people with the will and the burning desire to simply know more than they already do. It seems like a small thing, but it is indeed everything.