Magazine article The New Yorker

Particle Follies

Magazine article The New Yorker

Particle Follies

Article excerpt

Walter Murch, the veteran film editor and sound designer, who has won Academy Awards for his contributions to "Apocalypse Now" and "The English Patient," spent a few months last summer in an editing suite on West Twenty-fifth Street, doing post-production on a documentary about the Large Hadron Collider. The movie, "Particle Fever," charts the progress of a group of theoretical and experimental physicists over five years, covering the L.H.C.'s construction, its switching on, its almost immediate and horrifying breaking down, in 2008, and its repair and restoration. The film concludes with the announcement, last July, that repeated particle collisions had, finally, made it possible to detect the existence of the elusive Higgs field, which was theorized by physicists as long ago as the nineteen-sixties--and which, physicists say, gave rise to all the matter in the universe--but had never been proved experimentally. The result, the filmmakers hope, is a scientific story that's comprehensible to the layperson: the ultimate reality movie, as the film's tagline says.

Recently, over lunch at Milanes, a Dominican restaurant near the studio, Murch reflected on the sound qualities of the L.H.C., which lies underground near Geneva, and the work being done there. He explained that scientists have sonified the data output of the L.H.C., and tuned it so that it falls within the acoustic spectrum, in the hope of recognizing patterns that might not otherwise be evident. "This means we can hear the music of this machine," he said. "It has a rhythm and a harmonic pulse that is very intriguing." When asked if it sounded like anything he recognized, Murch said, "If you played it to me without my knowing anything more, I would say that it is from Brazil. You are tapping into the heart of the universe, so maybe the universe is Brazilian. The door to it just happened to be in Switzerland."

The most challenging aspect of editing such a movie, Murch said, was combining the elucidation of particle physics with a human narrative. Murch's own education was in Romance languages and literature, but he has long read science for fun. In 1986, while he was working on "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," in France, he came across a French book on cosmology, in which the author explained the Higgs field by quoting a story from "Kaputt," an often lyrical account of the Second World War by Curzio Malaparte, the Italian journalist and provocateur. In Malaparte's telling, there was, during the Siege of Leningrad, a sudden cold snap. …

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