What can opera teach us about particle physics?

A new opera film set inside the largest particle accelerator on earth explores science through an artistic lens. Will this unlikely partnership help answer existential questions?

Martial Trezzini/AP/File
In this Thursday, March 22, 2007 file photo two engineers works to assemble one of the layers of the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet (CMS, Compact Muon Solenoid) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)'s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particule accelerator, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Deep within the bowels of the largest machine on earth – CERN’s particle accelerator the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – scientists search for answers to the biggest mysteries of space and time on the smallest scale. They also host dance opera performances.

Art and science have struck a balance and found a shared appreciation for beauty in the upcoming film “Symmetry.” Set within the 16-mile long Large Hadron Collider, “Symmetry” combines opera and dance to explore discoveries in the field of particle physics.

“I would like to think that at the base there is a similar impulse, that all of us are trying to answer [existential] questions: What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN, said in a teaser for the opera.

“Symmetry” was written and directed by Ruben van Leer and choreographed by Lukas Timulak.

"I didn't want to make a documentary to explain or understand modern physics in general, but rather interpret the complex material this institution is presenting," Van Leer said.

The opera, lead by Timulak and soprano Claron McFadden, portrays a physicist’s search for the smallest particle in the universe while focusing on the philosophical side of physics.

The film will be released as CERN scientists prepare for their second attempt to use the LHC to recreate the temperature of the universe billionths of a second after the Big Bang. The last time that the experiment was run in 2012, the Higgs boson was observed for the first time. This time physicists are looking for results that will shake up the Standard Model of particle physics.

"The data so far has confirmed that our theory is really really good, which is frustrating because we know it's not,” Tara Shears, a particle physics professor from the University of Liverpool, told BBC News. "We know it can't explain a lot of the Universe. So instead of trying to test the truth of this theory, what we really want to do now is break it - to show where it stops reflecting reality. That's the only way we're going to make progress."

The full length version of “Symmetry” will be screened at the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam on March 14 as part of the Cinedans Film Festival dedicated to dance on film and the NewScientist CERN Festival.

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