Possibilities—Inside Out

From the Smallest to the Largest, Getting to the Heart of the Matter

The familiar dichotomy of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ may seem to cover just about anything we can talk about, but as this issue’s DVDs make clear, both have dimensions that we seem to be just beginning to appreciate. Others would argue that there is nothing new under the sun, and that includes most thinking on these and any other topics.

 

Particle Fever

PBS

Directed by Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker, from the inspiration and initiative of producer David Kaplan, and edited by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Godfather trilogy), Particle Fever is a celebration of discovery, revealing the very human stories behind this epic machine.

Imagine being able to watch as Edison turned on the first light bulb, or as Franklin received his first jolt of electricity. For the first time, a film gives audiences a front row seat to a significant and inspiring scientific breakthrough as it happens. Particle Fever follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet, pushing the edge of human innovation. As they seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe, 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries join forces in pursuit of a single goal: to re-create conditions that, they tell us, existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter. But they confront an even bigger challenge: have we reached our limit in understanding why we exist?

So, who is Mark Levinson, and how did he come to be the director of a documentary about the pursuit of the discovery of the Higgs boson? In an interview, he contributed the following:

“In art and science we’re trying to represent the world around us,” says Levinson, who received a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from UC Berkley before embarking on a decades-long career in movie post-production. “In physics, the language we use is math; but painters and musicians—along with script writers and directors—also represent the world in a way that moves you and gives you insight…I had always thought I might do something about science in order to justify the fact that I started my film career with a physics Ph.D. Then some investors told me about a physicist, David Kaplan, who had presented them with a proposal for a documentary about an experiment that might not work, and even if it did, it might not find anything. They thought it was a bad idea, but, of course, I thought it sounded great. So I contacted David and told him that although I wasn’t interested in doing a traditional, informational physics documentary, if we could make it into something that was character driven, where I could use my narrative, storytelling techniques, I would be really excited. He was all for that as well, so that’s how we got started.”

Directing a feature-length documentary is like a scientific experiment. First, you sketch the story you’d like to tell—that’s your hypothesis. Then you shoot the footage—that’s your data. Then, you process that footage in the editing room to see whether the story can be told and the hypothesis proved.

The scientists at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) followed a similar process while searching for the Higgs boson. (The Higgs was hypothesized to exist in 1964; this quest to get the LHC up and running—and hopefully find the Higgs—is the subject of Levinson’s movie). Here’s how it works:

Particle Fever follows a handful of theoretical and experimental physicists in the U.S. and CERN over six years. Just as the scientists responded to unexpected obstacles and breakthroughs in their experiment, Levinson was also forced to rethink the movie he had set out to make.

Originally, he intended the start-up of the LHC in 2008 to be the film’s climax. Since the scientists had been working on the machine since the late ’90s, he hoped to build suspense through the question of whether the machine would even turn on. If it did, “and if we were really lucky, there’d be a discovery,” he said. Everyone else said, “We probably won’t discover the Higgs while filming.”

But, immediately after the machine was turned on for the first time, it broke. “My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh, my god, this is a disaster! What kind of film do I have if nothing even starts?’ ” So, instead of the climax, he decided to make the 2008 accident the start of the film. Then, while the machine was being fixed, he could shoot footage of the scientists who had devoted their lives to finding the Higgs. He wanted to get the audience to feel the stakes for these characters. “Then, there will be even more drama when the LHC starts up again,” he said.

“Most documentarians talk about their ‘subjects,’” says Levinson. “I thought of the people in the film as characters,” his intention being to show the complexity, hopes, and flaws of his protagonists. “We could have just let the camera run,” he adds. “CERN had a camera running the whole time.” But simply collecting data doesn’t make great art, just like the mere existence of data does not prove a hypothesis. It’s how you interpret the data that matters. “Knowing how to pull the drama (the data) out and create an emotion—that’s symbolic of what actually happened—is where the art is, really.”

Because of this character-first approach, the initial version of Particle Fever had almost no science in it whatsoever. “The typical way of doing things would have been to try and explain everything and then take out what we didn’t need,” says Levinson. “Instead, our challenge was putting in just enough information, just in time for the audience to need it.” Levinson ran a series of test screenings and noted at what point audience members felt confused. Then he would add in the science accordingly. Even so, he agonized over balancing the physics with his characters. “They’re what humanize the story, but audiences always wanted to know what was happening with the LHC,” he said.

Thus, Levinson was forced to cut some secondary plot lines—even the kind of dramatic material that documentarians crave, like competition between the scientists at CERN. (However, viewers of this film might want to check out the “Extra Features” section for some interesting “back-and-forth” between the theoretical physicists and the experimental physicists.). He compensated for the excised drama with editing and called upon Walter Murch, an Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer. “In reality, the first collider beam in 2008 took place over many hours of time,” says Levinson. Murch collapsed time, played up one of the machine’s many false starts, and used music to bring the audience to a point of expectation. “Knowing just how many beats of anticipation are needed and then when to satisfy that anticipation is a function of Walter’s editing and music coming together,” says Levinson.

And, while that was effective in many places, there was also a sense of some confusion and disjointedness; overall, though, this is a fascinating watch, as you get a front-row seat, at least enough to justify a recommended viewing.

DVD – 100 Min. • $29.95 • 1-800-228-8381

 

Black Hole Apocalypse

Nova

In this fascinating documentary, you’ll join astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin on a mind-blowing voyage to the frontiers of black hole science, which is shining new light on the most powerful and mysterious objects in the universe—black holes. Levin is the Tow Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University; she has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of space/time. She is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works. Her previous books include How the Universe Got Its Spots and a novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which won the PEN/Bingham Prize. She was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow. Her latest book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, is the inside story on the discovery of the century: the sound of space-time ringing from the collision of two black holes over a billion years ago.

Black holes are believed to be the most enigmatic, mysterious, and exotic objects in the universe. They’re also the most powerful, with gravity so strong they can actually capture light. Black holes are totally dark; that is their essence. When black holes collide, they will do so unilluminated. Yet the black hole collision is, according to conventional physics, an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe. And, according to the theory, they’re the most destructive, swallowing dust, gas, and planets, even giant stars. Anything that falls into them vanishes—gone forever. The profusion of energy, it has been predicted, will emanate as waves in the shape of space-time: gravitational waves. No telescope will ever record the event; instead, the only evidence would be the sound of space/time ringing—black holes may be heard but not seen. In 1916, Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, his top priority after he proposed his theory of curved space-time. One century later, we are recording, say the astrophysicists, the first sounds from space, the soundtrack to accompany astronomy’s silent movie. There is no sound in empty space; but when the gravitational waves hit the Earth, detectors, ostensibly, measure the stretching and shrinking of space and amplify the result as sound.

Now, many astrophysicists have come to believe that black holes are essential to understanding how our universe unfolded—maybe to explaining our very existence. In this two-hour special, we meet leading astronomers and physicists on the edge of finding new answers to provocative questions about these shadowy monsters: Where do they come from? What’s inside them? What happens if you fall into one? And what can they tell us about the nature of space, time, and gravity?

Quoting from Levin’s research: “Our universe appears to stretch nearly thirty billion light years across. As far as the eye can see, there is no visible bounds to space-time. Still the universe may not be infinite. There was once a cultural prejudice that the earth was flat and unconnected, so much so that explorers were feared to have fallen off the edge. The assumption that space must be infinite may represent a similar bias. A tenable possibility is that space itself is not only curved, as Einstein suggested, but that it is also finite. A finite universe, and indeed a finite universe with several extra dimensions, may be a prediction of a theory beyond Einstein’s—the long coveted Theory of Everything (TOE). Even as we struggle to understand the universe as drawn by a TOE, recent astronomical observations may be on the cusp of resolving this age-old question: Is the universe infinite?

“Many times in the history of physics, theories have been shaped by such profound limits. Einstein proposed a fundamental limit in the speed of light and thereby discovered Relativity. Heisenberg invoked an uncertainty principle in measurements of quantum phenomena and thereby laid a cornerstone for Quantum Mechanics. Alongside these should be listed the profound incompleteness in our knowledge of numbers—there can never be a mathematical theory of everything. The proposal is to define the limits mathematical incompleteness might set on a physical theory of everything. Just as Relativity emerged from the limit of light’s speed, and Quantum Theory emerged from the limits of measurement, deep insight into the universe and its origins could emerge by confronting the limit of mathematical incompleteness.”

Not surprisingly, this NOVA presentation offers great graphics. You’ll even be taken on a wild ride across the cosmos, to places where everything you think you know is challenged—where space and time, even reality, are stranger than fiction.

DVD – 120 Min. • $27.95 • 1-800-228-8381

 

HEAL—The Most Powerful Healer Is Within

Beyond Words Publishing

Director Kelly Noonan’s documentary takes us on a scientific and spiritual journey where we discover that our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions have a huge impact on our health and ability to heal. The latest science reveals that we are not victims of unchangeable genes, nor should we buy into a scary prognosis. The fact is we have more control over our health and life than we have been taught to believe. This film will empower you with a new understanding of the miraculous nature of the human body and the extraordinary healer within us all.

HEAL not only taps into the brilliant minds of leading scientists and spiritual teachers; it also follows two people on actual high-stakes healing journeys. Healing can be extremely complex and deeply personal, but it can also happen spontaneously, in a moment. Through these inspiring and emotional stories we find out what works, what doesn’t, and why.

Featured are scientist and healers, many of whom we are already familiar to our readers: Dr. Bruce Lipton, Dr. Deepak Chopra, Anita Moorjani, Marianne Williamson, Dr. Michael Beckwith, Dr. Joe Dispenza, Anthony William, Gregg Braden, Dr. Joan Borysenko, Dr. David Hamilton, Dr. Kelly Brogan, Rob Wergin, Dr. Kelly Turner, Peter Chrone, Dr. Darren Weissman, and Dr. Jeffrey Thompson. They all advise that emotional and spiritual healing should be part of any prescription in order to be successful.

Worth quoting here is Dr. Bruce Lipton (whose DVDs have been previously reviewed in Atlantis Rising): “Medicine, being derived from Newtonian physics, looked at the body as a physical device, and if there’s anything wrong with it, it’s a consequence of a problem in the mechanics of a physical machine. Now, this was really cool until 1925. In 1925 a new physics came in, quantum physics…which said that an invisible energy realm was out there that we did not count, or even talk about in medicine, because it’s just a physical body. It turns out that our perception of what is physical is an illusion; there’s nothing physical at all—it’s all energy…A long, long time ago, the word ‘spirit’ was—what? Invisible moving forces that influence the physical realm. Quantum physics is taking us back to a time that says that the invisible forces that we have been discounting in medicine, turn out to be the primary forces that control everything! And I say, what do they include? Mind, consciousness; and this is why if you want to come back to the supreme power over our biology, it is thought—invisible energy—from our mind that not only shapes our body but shapes our relationship to the world in which we live.”

To those who may have already viewed the many DVDs available on this topic, which also included many of the same participants as in this documentary, it may be said there isn’t much new here, though not dismissing the basic importance of this information, as there is offered some spiritual wisdom and knowledge. However, to those for whom this is their introduction to this field, it may be said that this is inspiring, even comforting.

DVD – 106 Min. • $19.95 • 1-800-228-8381

By Marsha Oaks