Here’s the thing. Director and former particle physicist Mark Levinson has made a film, Particle Fever, about the finding of the Higgs particle by the LHC. That’s good news. And it sounds appealing – no omniscient narrator, just the scientists telling the tale. And there are plenty of female physicists in it. But… Here is Levinson on why his background was useful for doing this job: “In some senses, physics hadn’t changed that much since I got out of it in the 80s, because they didn’t have the LHC.” There’s a word missing in that sentence, Mark: “particle”. Particle physics hasn’t changed that much – and to say so is not a great endorsement of your former discipline. But this equating of “physics” with “particle physics” not only plays along with the media myth that the only thing worth noting in physics is what is going on at CERN, but also explains outbursts like this one I received from a (non-particle) physicist recently: “Perhaps the poster child for overselling science should be high-energy physics. They oversold the most expensive toys that physicists have ever produced: high-energy particle accelerators… their arrogance when they talk about ‘the god particle’ and ‘the most important problems’ is disappointing.” I’ve heard similar things from other frustrated physicists. Perhaps Levinson is not now a spokesperson for the particle-physics community, but he does it no favours in this remark.
And it’s evidently not a one-off slip. Later he suggests that there is some fundamental division (in physics) between theorists and experimentalists, along the following lines: “A theorist can wake up in the morning, suddenly erase an equation and rewrite it. An experimentalist, meanwhile, has been working on building a machine for 10 years to prove that theory.” This is not remotely true outside of particle physics – not only could most experimental physicists ill afford to spend 10 years working on building a machine (even if they had to) without having their funding dry up, but most physicists I know work on theory and experiment at the same time.
It is hard not to feel a churl if you express some reservations about the jamboree around the Higgs – but when you see that this circus has apparently convinced some outsiders that the discovery of the Higgs was the most important event in science in the past 100 years, it seems right to feel a twinge of concern. That’s part of the reason I wrote this article. CERN is a blast, the Higgs news was mighty fine, and Peter Higgs deserved the Nobel. But can we please keep a sense of proportion, both about the importance for physics and the whole issue of what physics is?
As for Levinson, he redeems himself by planning – if I read the signs right – to make a film about Denis Noble’s book The Music of Life. I look forward to that.