Particle Fever's Mark Levinson on Missed Chances and the Need for Fundamental Science
What-could-have-been has to be a tough subject for the town of Waxahachie. Its biggest claim to fame these days is being the birthplace of Thomas Everett Blasingame, who when he died in 1989 at age 91 was the oldest working cowboy American West.
That's not much to hang a town's hat on, yet there was a time when Waxahachie was just billions of dollars and years away from becoming a world center of science as the home of the world's largest physics project, the Superconducting Super Collider. But in 1993, that dream was crushed when the U.S. government canceled the multibillion-dollar project.
Now the world's largest and most powerful particle collider, the Large Hadron Collider, resides in Geneva, Switzerland. Its story is the subject of Particle Fever, a documentary directed by theoretical-physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson that follows 10 scientists during their pursuit to find the Higgs bosun, a subatomic particle whose existence is key to physicists' theories about the nature of the cosmos.
The film's celebration of big science's success would be incomplete if it didn't mention Waxahachie, at least briefly.
Very briefly, as it turned out.
While Levinson doesn't address what went wrong with Waxahachie in the film, in a recent interview he told us what we sort of already knew: It was political.
"It was political maneuvering, and there's no one single thing. But I think it was a lack of understanding of why fundamental science needs to be supported," he said. "And in some sense that is what the whole film is about -- why it should be. It's the support of fundamental science research that's what really pushes us forward as a human race in some sense, not just necessarily things that have a very clear, economical, practical value."
But that's a much harder sell, he said.
Levinson went to the Dallas suburb to shoot some scenes for the film, but the former site was basically a ghost town. He found no physicists left and graffiti inside and out on the buildings, so Levinson headed to a town outside Waxahachie, where he filmed a man inside a café dusting off a cap that read: "Waxahachie: Home of the SSC."
"It's a cautionary tale in my mind in terms of what happened," Levinson said. "I think the particle physics community suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome when it was canceled, so it does give it a sort of resonance here because in some sense this film might have been about Waxahachie, which is interesting."
Levinson said background in science isn't required to enjoy the character-driven movie and in fact, it's already received an audience award.
Nevertheless, it might be a bitter pill to swallow for the folks in Waxahachie.
"[The U.S.] blew it. It would have been a boost for all these people essentially," Levinson said. "Just think. Who would have been down here is top particle physicists in the world, and they probably would have discovered the Higgs particle, so it's a sad state, sad decision that it was canceled."