Episode 4: Science & Storytelling Collide

We're super excited to bring to you guys Episode 4 of the Science: Disrupt podcast, with Mark Levinson, Director of Particle Fever!

Here's the trailer to get you all set...

The story of the discovery of Higgs at the LHC reads like narrative fiction; its first test ends in a devastating explosion, an entire field of science hinges on what's to be discovered, rival factions, a prediction waiting 50 years for validation....

Mark Levinson understood this. The filmmaker with a PhD in theoretical particle physics was the solution to physicist Dave Kaplan's desire to cover the discovery of the Higgs - he was the man who could tell the story that needed to be told. Particle Fever, a documentary following the trials and tribulations of scientists at CERN collided authenticity of the science and a human story that resonates with those not directly involved. In initial discussions, neither Dave or Mark were keen on covering this story via the traditional lens of an educational documentary. But covering it was risky, after all they didn't know at the outset whether the experiment would work, and if it worked they didn't know if it would find anything. 

Particle Fever's narrative is somewhat driven by the juxtaposition of the theoreticians and experimentalists. The separation between those in theoretical physics and experimental particle physics is enormous. And it's a phenomena that is particularly exaggerated in high energy physics. Here the the experiments are so huge and demanding, and the mathematics on the theory side are so advanced, that you effectively can't do both. Theorists compose the questions that the experimentalists investigate, and the data derived from the experiments feed new lines of theoretical inquiry. For many years theories had gone beyond our technical capacity to test them. But theorists were desperate for experimental data. In time, as Mark notes, detente is established via a recognition of this fundamental interdependence. 

The suggestion of Particle Fever as a human story is one that shouldn't be understated - this is how people relate to things, and that is why the film resonated. That is why it attained theatrical release. It was met with a bang because the stories were relatable while retaining narrative drama and scientific authenticity. With regards to the landscape of feature films focussing on science and scientists, there's something to be encouraged about. Pop culture loves the stereotype of a scientist and insists of dumbing down the content. Particle Fever proved there is an audience for real science, that do not want to be spoken down to. As our first guest Luke Robert Mason pointed out, there's nothing more important than respecting your audience. There's a wealth of scientists willing to consult on projects, there is now no excuse. The end result is a movie that at once inspires an audience and grounds the protagonists, after all these are normal people. They happen to be doing something pretty damn cool, but their story doesn't need to be diluted by fiction film tropes. Tell the story like it is. One achievement that Mark and Dave were particularly proud of was the reception from the physics community. The Higgs in the wider media had been distorted ('god particle'...) so coverage in this area could make the field feel vulnerable. Particle Fever, acting as an honest account of scientists working on an incredible physics project was able to satisfy even the most uneasy researcher.

So what's next for Mark? Well, a follow up is not on the cards although the story will be followed closely... some films just don't need a sequel. Through Particle Fever, the director was reconnected with his science heritage, so next on the menu are two fascinating adventures into science. The first being a script based on the Gold Bug Variations - a 1991 Richard Powers novel. The other, brings to life one of the most egregiously forgotten scientists, Claude Shannon, father of information theory, a man responsible for laying the foundations of our digital world ... definitely another story that needs to be told.

We'd like to thank Mark for taking the time to chat to us. Particle Fever is far and away, one of the best of examples of science communication 'done right'. 

Check the movie out here: Particle Fever

And their twitter is: @ParticleFever