“The things that are the least important for our survival, are the very things that make us human.”
Obsessives make great documentary subjects. Middle aged men obsessing over the Donkey Kong high score sounds too silly for a movie script. But when you see it happening in real life in The King of Kong, it’s hilarious, sad, uplifting and supremely entertaining. Spelling bees, crosswords, Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons… All of these things, and the people who love them, have all made for great documentaries.
And while the inconsequential nature of their obsessions has been a big part of what makes these movies so entertaining, what happens when obsessives try to answer a big question? Obsessives who actually have the intelligence and resources to answer a big question, like, what is the basis of all life? What happens is, you get Particle Fever.
After almost three decades of construction, preparation and anticipation, the Large Hedron Collider in Switzerland is about to be turned on and put through its paces. The brightest scientific minds from all over the world had worked on this facility for decades, and Particle Fever starts in 2008 when they were about to flick the switch for the first time.
Telling parallel stories of the history of the Collider, and the real time anticipation of that switch flick while this documentary was being filmed, Particle Fever is a great science lesson. It’s pitched at the perfect level to make you feel like you’re leaning something, without it being to spoon fed, or going over your head.
Having said all of that, I still assume I understood very little of the specifics of what got these nerds so excited. And excited they did get. After a couple of setbacks, they finally get the first collision they’ve all been waiting for, and the response is contagious. I don’t get what’s exciting about it, but I kind of felt it too when I saw the relief, the happiness, the wonder and the hope on their faces.
They’re looking for proof of current theories, they’re looking for something new to inspire new theories, they’re looking for answers. But in a way, they’re kind of looking for new questions to ask as well. If Particle Fever is to be believed, physicists are an optimistic bunch, who live for nothing more than solving one mystery so they can enthusiastically dive into the next one.
Which brings me back to obsessives. Like Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe in The King of Kong, their current obsession at the time was just that, current. If Mitchell and Wiebe weren’t obsessing over Donkey Kong, they’d obsess over something else. It just seems to be in their nature. These scientists have worked decades on the Large Hedron Collider, waiting to see what it unveils. Once that’s done, you know that’s not the finish line. These people will just use it as the jumping off point for what’s next. And that’s what makes obsessives such great documentary fodder. The end of one thing is always just the beginning of something else.