Subatomic Cinema
March 5, 2010 |  by Michael Anft

A Hopkins physicist documents the search for the key to the universe.

David Kaplan builds theoretical models to explain how elementary forces and particles might work. He researches “dark matter,” the mysterious stuff that makes up as much as 25 percent of the universe, though no one understands why. He has a lengthy and deep list of publications that spans 13 years. Nowhere on it will you find the term auteur.

But Kaplan, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins, has aspirations of becoming a kind of Scorsese of science, a film director driven to tell a story that peers into the rich, sometimes-dark recesses of human nature. Kaplan’s opus–working title: “Particle Fever”–focuses on a handful of the thousands of scientists who have gathered at a huge supercollider deep below the French-Swiss Alps, where they hope to answer the most fundamental questions of nature.

There’s more at stake at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility than science. Reputations built on intensive speculation of how the universe runs will undoubtedly crumble. After data from LHC experiments are boiled down, years of research will, for many, be swallowed up by a (metaphorical) black hole of findings. The field of particle physics, at least as it’s been practiced until now, and many of the far-flung theories that have sustained it might reach a cosmic dead-end. “There’s a drama unfolding at the LHC, one that I think needs to be captured,” says Kaplan, 41, a wiry neutrino of a man whose brown hair brings to mind the tangled consistency of Einstein’s. “One of the things that’s exciting about the field right now is that we have all of these exceptional people in it. But if the LHC raises questions that are unanswerable, then we might not have those people anymore. People who give me money for the film want to know whether there will be a happy ending. But the most dramatic thing is if there’s not.”

Kaplan decided to document the anticipation surrounding the LHC in 2006, before the collider even opened, training his amateur’s camera eye on prominent physicists who have invested a lifetime’s worth of thought to the nature of the universe. Quickly made aware of his cinematic limitations, he hired an additional director and a pair of cinematographers from New York, and then added a second crew based in Geneva to document events once the LHC restarted operations late last year after a few early-on glitches.

Now that the multi-billion-dollar device is back up and running, Kaplan devotes almost all of his time to his film, suspending his teaching and research this spring to focus his lens on the human story behind the science. He spends part of it flying from city to city in search of cash to sustain the project, trotting out a six-minute trailer of “Particle Fever” to sell the idea. “I spend a lot of time in people’s living rooms,” he says, adding that the extensive time up in the air has so far landed him $300,000.

Eventually, Kaplan and crews will narrow the focus of the film to two scientists with competing ideas, so people can identify with one or the other of them. “I want the viewer to get the experience of being a scientist,” he says. “I really want to show that what is about to happen is going to have such an impact on all the players involved, and in a way we can’t predict. It’s like when you have your first child. You can’t predict what your life will become, or even what you’ll be like. I see the same thing whenever there’s a rumor or something [at the LHC]. You can see the shock in people’s faces. There’s a lot of anxiety.”
Capturing a moment of utter clarity, such as when the LHC provides an answer as to why particles are so light–or when scientists become crestfallen–should be recorded for posterity, Kaplan adds.

“I can’t find an analogy for this,” he says. “There’s a real possibility that particle physics could be all over. That’s the real reason I’m making the film. In the history of science, this might become the most important thing that has ever happened.”