(Originally published Apr 4, 2017 on popscience17.wordpress.com)
Particle Fever is a documentary about physics, but it is also a film about people. As Bill Nichols notes, documentaries tell stories using narrative and filmic techniques like any film—they do not “reproduce” reality any more than a historical biopic does. As a representation, Particle Fever takes on the tasks of conveying scientific concepts to an assumed “lay” audience; this makes up the “technical” portion of the documentary’s narrative. But it also dedicates a hefty dose of screen time to the people behind the project, the scientists at CERN.
In crafting the stories of scientists working on the four projects at the Large Hadron Collider, the film’s creators had to choose which narrative threads to include and which to leave out. For the most part, we are presented with a slow-paced oscillation between the gritty, energetic work of CERN scientists and the simple, quotidian moments (riding a bike, eating cereal, going for a walk) that convey a more “human” side. Of course, this distinction between machine and human, work and home, science and mundanity is constructed by the film rather than represented by it. The choice to split its narratives into two distinct modes, to contrast the human element with the scientific element, was deliberate. This introduces the question: what is the purpose of the personal side of this film about physics, and how does it inform our understanding of science (and reflexively, not-science)?
To take a pre-emptive shot at answering this, I want to point to the inclusion of diaspora narratives in the film. Two of the LHC scientists tell stories about leaving their home countries (Turkey and Iran respectively) because of political and/or cultural tensions. Although these secondary refugee narratives don’t seem to have direct bearing on the main narrative, they do frame it in a way that makes an implicit argument about the relationship between science and politics. Both scientists note that they chose to enter physics because it ‘can’t be argued’ like political positions can—particle science is “absolute” and therefore apolitical. By including these refugee narratives in abridged and defanged forms (in such a way as to minimize political affect in the viewer), and presenting diaspora as a transition out of politics and into science, the film asks the viewer to conceive of the physical sciences as depoliticized and objective, creating forms of politically toothless affect which are easier to swallow.
As a Physics major, I understand the emotional intensity that can accompany physics narratives that deal with fundamental and philosophically charged aspects of reality (i.e. the Higgs boson). But I also recognize how the absence of politicized affect from narratives around physics is often deliberate and obscures the numerous political and human dimensions of the discipline.