Searching for the “god particle”


Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney; directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Fig. 1 below is a representation of the particle tracks produced from the atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the particle accelerator in Europe. Although it looks like a complicated science-thingy, it’s easy to calculate that scientists will be pro-cessing these particle tracks for some time as they indicate the discovery of the Higgs boson — the so-called “god particle” — that imbues matter with mass and hence the subatomic source of gravity itself. Particle physicists had to sift through the many familiar spirals, curlicues and curved particle track lines that are typically produced in countless such accelerator experiments to discern that this time there may be more there than meets the eye.

Fig. 1 This track is an example of simulated data of a decay path of the Higgs boson from the Large Hadron Collider as well as the cinematic tracks of the film Gravity.

It’s a mind-boggling scientific coincidence that Fig. 1 also represents the cinematic tracks produced when watching the film Gravity. And although Gravity may seem simple and straight-forward on the surface, containing many familiar cinematic tracks inherent in countless previous films — that is, a story about a Space Shuttle crew that becomes stranded after space junk slams into them while servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and their efforts to survive and get back to terra firma — like its doppelganger Higgs boson graph, it has more there than meets the senses and is similarly worthy of more probative inspection. Thus, one can safely theorize that moviegoers will be processing for some time the experience and reflections of watching the film Gravity. It may even possess its own version of a “god particle” that’s equally weighty and ponderous in terms of what it all might mean.

Specifically, from Fig. 1, the following curiosities emerge from the Gravity cinematic element tracks that, as with the identical Higgs boson graph, prod further questions, interpretation and analysis:

The Circular Grid Lines: Before any cinematic tracks can be produced by this Gravity experiment, a medium is needed to measure results — hence the concentric grid lines in Fig.1. For Gravity, these constitute a graphic reference point whereby the audience is reminded that there is no sound, O2 or other life-sustaining conditions in space. This begs the following question: Why is this graphic reminder even necessary given such obvious truths? The answer lies in the fact that audiences have been subjected to so many films where thunderous spaceship engines are heard on the soundtrack and impossible feats of survival by humans that observers of uber-realistic Gravity may have forgotten and need reminders of this reality.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./The Colorado Statesman

The Red Tracks: These tracks, three of which trend from the upper left to the center of the image, represent the main characters of Gravity; a seasoned space-walker, a less-experienced crew member working on the Hubble telescope, and a third who is glimpsed near the shuttle to provide support for the other two. As can be seen by the relative straightness of the tracks, the movie begins with them as they are right in the middle of their work hurtling through space circling the Earth. That’s what one would expect from similar cinematic elemental graphs. However this one shows that the red tracks converge in the center and produce a single red track that travels to the bottom right. This signifies that this film uniquely does not dwell on these characters’ back-stories (e.g. flashbacks, preludes, epilogues, etc.). This is ponderous as it raises the question: Do we really need extensive character histories in order to identify with their plight and sympathize with their humanity? More research may be needed, but on the basis of this Gravity experiment the answer is clearly no.

The Green Tracks: The complex swirls of green-colored tracks represent the vast amount of space junk orbiting the Earth at fantastic velocities. This material — detritus from missions, broken satellites, and other human deposited debris — creates deadly collision threats to everything in orbit, including the Hubble telescope-servicing Space Shuttle crew of Gravity. These tracks validate the so-called Kessler Syndrome — a theory that space junk collisions can create yet more space junk, leading to an eventual uncontrolled chain reaction of whirling bits that ultimately turns the space above Earth into a giant Cuisinart thereby making it uninhabitable for humans and man-made objects. The presence of these tracks in Gravity and the way that this junk (here specifically from a destroyed Russian satellite) creates a continuing and ever-present threat produces the query: Are we so loading up space with junk that we will eventually doom all space-faring activities? All tracks point to yes.

The Pink Tracks: As expected with a science fiction film, the cinematic elements producing these tracks are special effects. We have come to expect high-quality imagining of spacecraft, weightlessness and planetary bodies. But these Gravity tracks say much more. In fact, given their trajectory, it’s clear that these effects are off-the-scale in terms of realism and seamlessness. The space junk collisions with the Space Shuttle and space stations producing starburst shards of debris minus the fake explosions, the way that the camera moves flowingly around objects and passes through the helmets of the astronauts, and the lighting of the action based on the sun’s position relative to the Earth are all top-notch and produce the jaw-dropping query: Just how on Earth did they do that?! This result is so awesome that is produces the corollary question: Will all future space films be measured by this state-of-the-art rendering? This one answers itself.

The Light Blue Tracks: There are a couple of these tracks buried in the chaos of the other tracks mentioned above. These represent the deeper meanings of the Gravity reality. The astronauts encounter a series of horrific challenges trying to survive while floating in space in their spacesuits and with whatever they can find as they make their way to space stations that they hope have workable escape re-entry vehicles to get back to Earth. These white-knuckle, arm-chair gripping exploits will make one wonder: Is space exploration worth it? What happens to the individuals and how these events unfold incites the further question: How much are we in control of what happens to us and how much is based on sheer chance and fate? The harshness and inhospitableness of space leads one to ask: Will Gravity’s tracks cause people to appreciate the fragility and exceedingly rare preciousness of life-sustaining processes on Earth to engender greater stewardship and a protective environmental ethos? More experiments may be necessary.

The “God Particle”: This is difficult to detect, but all evidence points to the existence of such a particle in Gravity. The pull of returning to the safety and security of Earth itself is clear enough, as are gravity’s effects, which add further complications in the scramble to navigate through Earth’s atmosphere. But there’s an additional track that’s almost imperceptible, which leads to the weighty inquiry: Does a lack of oxygen produce an enhanced struggle for survival and hence greater clarity of thought to visualize heretofore unconsidered survival alternatives to seemingly impossible situations, or does it produce a near-death experience whereby the mind is open to messages from beyond? Only the infinite starry heavens above can say for sure.

Doug Young is our out-of-this-world film critic. He also works in the Hickenlooper administration as a senior policy advisor.