Sunday, November 24, 2013

Movie review: "The Atom Smashers"

"Atom Smashers" attempts to make a difficult scientific topic interesting to a general audience, with only partial success.

The documentary portrays the effort of scientists at Fermilab, near Chicago, to find the "Higgs boson," a subatomic particle that at the time many theorists believed to exist, but no one had actually found. (It was found in 2012.) Some describe the Higgs boson as key to understanding life itself.

The strength of the film lies in its portrayal of the scientists dedicated, passionate people who are unashamed nerds (they write songs using terms from the Unix programming language). They're likeable folks and they are committed to finding the Higgs boson, though not very good at describing what it is.

As a viewer, you want to get caught up in this quest, but the film does a poor job of explaining what the scientists are doing. We see researchers planning experiments and we're shown various charts and diagrams, but their significance is unclear. It's as if the filmmakers decided, "Particle physics is really complicated and hard to explain, so why bother trying?"

The other weak point in the film is a clunky section in the middle in which the scientists whine about dwindling government funding for their program. It was like a PBS fundraising drive suddenly interrupting an otherwise engaging drama.

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