Interview: David Kaplan and Mark Levinson of “Particle Fever”

Posted on March 19, 2014 at 8:00 am

I loved “Particle Fever,” the gripping, illuminating, inspiring story of the world’s most brilliant physicists searching for the answer of answers — the building blocks of the universe with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) .  So it was a special pleasure to speak to David Kaplan, Professor of Physics, Johns Hopkins University, featured in the film, and Mark Levinson, a PhD Physicist from Berkeley who became a feature filmmaker and then came full circle to direct his first documentary.

I’ve always felt that theoretical physicists are kind of the poets of science.  Am I right?

Mark Levinson:  Absolutely, I love the idea that you’d think of it as the poets of science because to me that really is the case. I got my doctorate in physics, very abstract but there was a poetry to it and obviously this is something that we tried to bring out very much in the film as well. When you think of a poet, what are poets doing? They’re trying to represent the world in a certain way and in an economical way that is evocative, that reveals something about it and this is what they are doing as well.  I think the theoretical physicists are doing that as well, it’s about synthesis, is about representation of the world and I think that it is equally true in the arts. I moved from physics into the arts and it didn’t seem like a huge jump for me.  And it was weird when I was doing it, I was not that conscious of a big difference. And I think it’s a very appropriate description, yes.

David Kaplan: Particle physics which we don’t love to call fundamental physics but sort of that cutting edge basic science, the broadness of the possibilities of what we might find in the types of phenomena we are speculating might be there is so vast that you really have to have quite an open mind and a certain level of creativity about what could possibly be going on. And so in that sense it’s about as non-linear as it gets.  My analogy is: first you send out the explorers to the land that’s never been seen by humans. So they go first then they come back and they report then you send the rest of the scientists to analyze what it’s like, detailed properties of flora, fauna, geology all kinds of things but that first set of people, they are on the edge of sanity and are willing to go through a really true, unknown landscape and with that you have to have an extraordinarily open mind and be able to take in and put together the information that you get as it comes. So less the artistic but more you can imagine so crazy things, sounding crazy, coming out of particle physics sort of thing.

So with this movie and the new Cosmos show and “The Big Bang Theory” is the biggest thing on television right now.  Is this science having a moment? 

David Kaplan: That’s a hope. I think the time scale for doing physics is very long. This is about the oldest quantitative science that we’ve got. Newton was discovering calculus as a way of being more rigorously defining his theory of gravity. So that’s four hundred years in the making and so it that sense there may be waves and this may be a wonderful time to put on a film about physics. But the field goes through times of suffering and times of enlightenment and we hope certainly that we are entering those times because as small finite humans it would be much more fun to be part of that as opposed to part of the other. So, I hope so, I hope we are seeing the signs of something beautiful.

Mark Levinson: There is, there seem to be a zeitgeist now of interest. I think the LHC has been very important in developing that. There are big ideas; artists are interest in big ideas. I found dancers that were trying to do things and painters and photographers and performance artists and CERN started an arts residency program where they chose an artist and pair him up with a physicist and they do something together. And so I think there is a real fascination from the arts community. On the other hand, we have climate change deniers, that other sort of thing.

I like the way that you made complicated information so engaging and so accessible. 

David Kaplan: The trick is to not focus on that. The trick is to focus on telling as honest a story as possible and let people into the experience of it and then you put the science in only for the purpose to drive the narrative and not for the purpose of explaining physics to you. So we set out to invite people into this world not so they could learn particle physics because you cannot learn particle physics in ninety minutes but you can experience what it’s like to attempt to make discoveries and to broaden understanding about reality and fundamental physics. And if you understand the process it turns out that the little physics you do here sinks in a little deeper.  My analogy is: memorize this list of words or make a song out of it.  If you make a song out of it, it’s in a context that you can remember much more easily.  Here you learn a physics at point A because you know this character is going to be impacted whether or not it’s true and for these following reasons.  And so you’re learning it so that you can keep up with the guy you are rooting for and find out what happens at the end.

Mark Levinson: Yes, that’s one of the interesting things with any film where somebody may know the ending. And I came from a feature narrative world.  When I moved out of physics I was not in documentaries and so this was something that was so, I mean I wrote scripts, I made a film, I worked with people who really this was what we did.  I would come in at the end where you are dealing with is the narrative and what works and what doesn’t work.  So what the big emphasis was initially is get the story, get people involved, use everything that you can as narrative filmmakers to get them involved and put the science in where we need it in the end. Now, that was very hard but we had the basic structure first and then it was a matter of peering it down. And I think that one of the critical things David and I have always say is we knew what we could leave out and that was really important.

What do you think are some of the best and worst science depictions in the movies?

Mark Levinson: Well the worst in my mind is when they have a generic scientist walking around in the lab coat doing things and they’re theorists and they completely confuse theorist and experimentals.  They think: it’s just a scientist. A scientist wears a white lab coat, that’s it.  And the physcist in “Angels and Demons” was completely implausible. I would say for me I actually like “A Beautiful Mind.” I actually thought that his depiction of, the thought process was one of the few that I thought really good.

David Kaplan: I liked that very much.  I love “Contact.”  I love Jodie Foster in that role and the screenplay was by a scientist, Carl Sagan but I think the thing that’s always missing or almost always missing is the process and how clear it is that you go through many failures before you see success. Our movie is one and a half hours long and you see the failures.  That was very fortunate for the movie. It’s actually ended up being very fortunate for physics. Not everybody will say this but the failure and then the requirement to restart in the low-energy and 14 months later when the people who would do the detecting of the physics in principle had nothing to do. They spent those 14 months redefining their detectors, understanding them much better, and when it started working it worked perfectly and the data they were getting completely fit with their modeling of it. And when it doesn’t fit with the modeling and you make adjustments so that it fits sometimes you’re not a hundred percent for sure you have not corrupted it in some way. But if you have the modeling and then the data comes in and fits perfectly, the chances that you did something wrong and you made some wrong assumption about the data and they both went the right direction and still look like they were good is very rare. And so it gave so much more confidence in the machine when they turned it on and it works beautifully. So I blame part of that on the 14 months they had to twiddle their thumbs and find something else to do.

Mark Levinson: Actually, I think I’ve seen more plays that I think are more interesting when depicting science and I think that for me Copenhagen was a brilliant example of a play where the story and the science were integral to each other in a deep way. Arcadia is fun, you know, Tom Stoppard play is really brilliant. And in terms of film what was really an inspiration is not scientists but it’s about technology is “The Right Stuff.” And I love the idea that our characters would be seen as having the right stuff.

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