THE BLOG
03/13/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated May 13, 2014

The Smolin Factor? -- 'Particle Fever' Premiere and Party

It was Ash Wednesday and the sidewalks were still in deep freeze outside The Standard, High Line Hotel in New York's Meat Packing District for Executive Producer Gerry Ohrstrom's Particle Fever party, following the premiere at Film Forum. There were no celeb watchers, red carpets or black velvet ropes for this crowd of art-science enthusiasts. No parade of skeletal lovelies wearing Alexander McQueen and Dries van Noten. No flash of Louboutin red. This was serious, an event to celebrate the story about the search for Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle." And master of ceremonies, Gerry Ohrstom, wore his down vest.

Particle Fever (a somewhat misleading title since the Higgs is a force field) easily captures the fever surrounding "first beam" at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, the "first collision" of protons, and the emergence of Higgs boson -- coaxed out of a vacuum by the Big Smash.

We see the optimism of Mike Lamont, beam operations group leader (plus his concern over setbacks):

The magnetic properties of the machine are good. The aperture is clear. There's nothing sticking into the beam pipe anywhere. These are very, very encouraging signs. Remarkable progress.

We see Peter Higgs in the CERN theater, the man who first proposed the particle decades ago, gently weep at the Higgs moment. Freeman Dyson looking on, all ears and smiling.

The Film Forum audience (both shows I saw were sold out) seemed intoxicated by things to come. But what might they be?

The promise says David Kaplan, a Johns Hopkins physicist and one of the film's producers in a voice reminiscent of Al Franken's, is:

I have no idea. We have no idea... What is the LHC good for? Could be nothing other than understanding everything.

Kaplan says further that they're doing it to reproduce in the LHC "the physics, the conditions just after the Big Bang."

Somehow the Higgs discovery brings us closer to a definition of life, which according to Harvard Origin of Life Initiative director Dimitar Sasselov we so far don't have. The late Carl Woese agreed. In fact, he and Nigel Goldenfeld were awarded $8 million by NASA in 2012 to investigate just that -- the principles of the origin and evolution of life.

Goldenfeld told me when we spoke at lunch in the garden of Santa Fe Institute last fall that he's clearly still in the throes of the investigation.

But Perimeter Institute theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, whose ideas seem to have ruffled some feathers at CERN, says he has one, and recently described life to me this way:

Life takes place in the context of a steady state far from equilibrium situation with a steady flow of energy driving it, and within that context it's a semi-isolated system surrounded and protected by a membrane by which it controls the flows of material and energy across in each direction in order to promulgate its own survival and reproduction.

I tried to get answers from several physicists at the party as to just why Smolin's new physics ideas were not embraced at CERN. But they would only go so far as to say that they were "not testable." I'd heard this before at the COOL EDGE 2013 Origin of Life conference at CERN.

Smolin counters that his ideas are testable and points to as an example his "cosmological natural selection," published in 1992 in which he says he made two falsifiable predictions, both confirmed by current data. And he describes the Perimeter Institute in Toronto, which he helped found 12 years ago, as the best in the world for theoretical physics.

In his latest book Time Reborn, Smolin notes that time is NOW, not an illusion, and that we live in a relational world:

Embracing time means believing that reality consists only of what's real in each moment of time. This is a radical idea, for it denies any kind of timeless existence of truth -- whether in the realm of science, morality, mathematics or government. All those must be reconceptualized, to frame their truths within time.

So, if there was a fly in the Particle Fever soup, it was this. No alternative visions, such as Smolin's, were presented. Maybe there will be in a film sequel.

Particle Fever also highlights the new breed of women physicists with the camera frequently on Monica Dunford, at the time the film was shot a postdoc at CERN-Atlas.

We see Dunford's athleticism (and trophies) -- running, biking, rowing -- against the gorgeous backdrop of the French-Swiss countryside, plus her ability to command an audience at CERN. But we also hear her lament having to wear the hard hat and grunge. And somehow I was not surprised when she told me at the party following the film that she's now left CERN for a position at the University of Heidelberg.

CERN is still very much a man's world of steel-toe boots. Despite all the wonders of the LHC -- the largest machine ever built by human beings -- CERN lacks "powder rooms".

Subscribe to the Weird News email.
Truth is stranger than fiction. Step into the world of weird news.