Particle Fever and Modern Art

As mentioned last week, I was the on-hand expert for the Secret Science Club's foray into Massachusetts, a screening of the movie Particle Fever held at MASS MoCA. This worked out nicely in a lot of respects-- it gave me an excuse to visit the newly renovated Clark Art Institute in Williamstown and check out the spiffy new library at Williams (where they have my second book on the shelves, but not my first; I may need to send them an author copy in lieu of a check this year...). I also did some random nostalgia things like grabbing dinner at Colonial Pizza (now in a strip mall halfway to North Adams, not the same vibe) and going up to the overlook above the famous hairpin turn (the view from which is one of the things that convinced me I wanted to go to Williams). And, of course, I got to see the much-buzzed-about movie, which I hadn't gotten my act together to check out when it was in theaters. So, all kinds of winning.

The movie is very well done, following a handful of scientists from the days just before the first circulating beam at the LHC in 2008 to the announcement of the Higgs discovery in 2012. The most dynamic characters are superstar theorist Nima Arkani-Hamed and CERN post-doc Monica Dunford. Arkani-Hamed is notable for being furiously intense about whatever he's doing, whether it's talking about his pet theories, ranting about the PR mistakes made by CERN, discussing the abstract sculpture outside his office, or ordering convenience store food. Dunford is mostly just really enthusiastic. Like most such things, I think it oversells the general importance of the Higgs, and it doesn't really go into the physics quite enough, but it's very well made, and does a nice job showing the highs and lows of research science. I think the biochemistry documentary Naturally Obsessed probably did it a bit better, because they caught a much more immediate response to the major setback; the LHC and its collaborations are so huge that the magnet failure remains pretty abstract.

The participatory part was the usual mix of terrifying and fun. I helped put together a trivia quiz to be done beforehand, and the organizers asked me to do some on-stage chatter to help fill time while they collected the answers. We agreed that they would ask about the "Will the LHC destroy the Earth?" thing, so I could have something in mind to talk about rather than just free-associating. And, of course, once I was on stage I thought of something completely different than what I had worked out in my head in advance, and was basically ad-libbing. Which started to bomb, but I managed to save it. So, like I said, terrifying and fun.

Post-movie, I did Q&A, which was a little odd given that particle physics isn't really my thing. But I know enough to be able to give answers at the right general level, and I had the foresight during the movie to Google up Robert Wilson's famous testimony about Fermilab and national defense, so I could bust that out with proper attribution when someone asked what economic benefit would come from all this. And I got in the obligatory local pandering with a joke about Arkani-Hamed re-arranging the abstract sculpture, and a Williams-Amherst reference when talking up tabletop searches for new physics. I might've been a little hyper, but I think that's probably what was needed. Also, I might've had a couple of beers during the movie. There was a photographer taking pictures for MASS MoCA, but I haven't seen any.

I spent something like half an hour or forty minutes answering questions from people after the event was officially done, including one enthusiastic high school student, which is always great. The adrenaline rush from all the performing carried me most of the way to Pownal, VT on the way home, at which point the giant Coke I bought on my way out of town kicked in and caffeine and sugar got me the rest of the way home.

So, all in all, a great time. I enjoyed the movie, and the overall event; their usual Boorklyn venus is a bit out of the way for me, but I'll definitely consider making the trip down sometime when they have an event that's relevant to my interests.

My favorite random bit from the event came before the film, though, when we were working the room. The organizers were a few tables ahead of me, asking people if they had questions for a physicist (i.e., me), and when I caught up to them, they said "Oh, this guy is a physicist, too," indicating a guy sitting at a table way at the back with his teenage son. "Where do you work?" he asked me. "Union College," I said. "Union... Wait, are you Chad Orzel?" he asked. I said that I was, and he said "Oh, we have your books. Nice to meet you, I'm Adam Falk." And so I had a nice chat for a while with the president of my alma mater...

(I decided it would be tacky to complain to him about the library not having my first book...)

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