Mark Levinson- from a theoretical particle physicist to a celebrated film director

Image: Still from Mark Levinson's The Bit Player: John Hutton as Claude Shannon in Shannon's house in Winchester

Mark Levinson is a film director and writer based in New York. After studying particle physics, Mark went into a career in film – you might have heard about his film about the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN, Particle Fever. Mark tells us about his transition from science to film and narrative fiction, the value of film in science, and the links between art and scientific research. Mark’s new film, The Bit Player, is about a fellow polymath and an unsung hero in information theory, Claude Shannon – a man who not only laid the foundations for the information age we all now live in, but who also made a flaming trumpet for his son, built unicycles, and juggled. We had to find out more about Shannon, because to our shame we hadn’t heard of him… Mark will be coming to Pariscience film festival in October with The Bit Player – we’ve seen it, and it isn’t worth missing.

Nia Cason: Could you tell me about your science background?

Mark Levinson: Yes, I started my film career a bit unconventionally by getting a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics. I didn’t start college thinking I’d be a physicist, but after I had a very inspiring professor, that was all I wanted to do –  and I wanted to do the most abstract mathematical physics. I think what really appealed to me was that humans had been able to create this abstract world that somehow described the physical world. Particle physics probably has the most accurate theories in all of science in terms of scale and precision – in some sense, physics theories of how the universe works are the peak of human intellectual achievement. We’ve created this picture of the world with this language that we’ve invented, rules we’ve made, and it’s incredibly elaborate and detailed. And it has incredible legitimacy and accuracy in describing a world that we can’t even see. 

One of the rare photos of Claude Shannon

NC: So how does a theoretical particle physicist become a celebrated film director?

ML: I started getting entranced with another way of looking at the world, which was through film. Outwardly, of course, this seems like a huge transition. But from a practical perspective, I went from being a grad student in theoretical physics sitting in a room by myself with a pencil and paper, trying to come up with theories of the universe, not being paid – and then I started to write a film script: I was in a different room, with a pencil and paper, not getting paid. In both cases, you’re exercising similar skills in terms of creativity and imagination. You’re looking for consistency, simplicity, something that has a general meaning. So I didn’t feel ‘oh I have to turn off my physics brain and turn on my film brain’. 

NC: Did you start out making films about science?

ML: Initially I was in the narrative fiction world telling very human stories. My first film, Prisoners of Time [1993], was about artists trying to deal with the change after glasnost. Then I worked on some scripts and in post-production sound on some bigger films, and became closely associated with Anthony Minghella, working on The English Patient [1996] for example.

I didn’t feel that many narrative films depicted science in an interesting or intrinsic way and realised there was a potential for there to be a dramatic story about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. We were filming Particle Fever [2013] when they made a revolutionary discovery, the Higgs boson, so it became a pretty unusual document and suddenly I was in the science documentary world. The way it ended up was so dramatic that if I’d written this as a fiction script you’d have accused me of artifice. We were more intent on showing the process of science discovery than explaining everything – so I think the film resonated with many people because it was about the human drama of people trying to understand the universe. 

Mark Levinson with Cinematographer Claudia Raschke

NC: Can you tell me about your new film The Bit Player – who’s Claude Shannon?

ML: Claude Shannon has to be one of the most egregiously overlooked geniuses of our time. This man really is responsible for everything we have in the information age. There was very little footage of him, but I found transcripts from an interview done by the IEEE organisation in the 80s. The interview was conducted at his house, and you got a real sense of him as a person, this really playful person who not only laid the basis of information theory, who found a way to measure and compress information, but who also made a flaming trumpet, who juggled, who made unicycles. The Bit Player is coming to Paris with the Pariscience film festival at the end of October.

NC: What did Claude Shannon do for information theory?

ML: Shannon’s first big accomplishment, in his master’s thesis in 1938, was his realisation that Boolean algebra, the mathematics of logic, which reduced statements to just True or False, could be connected to electrical circuits, which are just on or off. This not only revolutionised circuit design, but also suggested the possibility that electric circuits could make logical arguments - essentially, to think. 

His obsession, since early childhood, was how do you effectively communicate? Early on he realised that communicating something clearly is basically just the other side of the coin of cryptography, where you want to ensure that it’s not communicated at all. This led to a real look at what information is. He fundamentally realised that information is not about content or meaning, it’s really about uncertainty – something you didn’t know and now you know. A binary value. At the most basic level, he realised that all information – pictures, sound, video – can be encoded in 0 and 1s, in bits. Once everything is converted to 0s and 1s, that gives you a way to mathematically deal with it. He showed you could compress information, and gave limits and goals for accurate communication. People who know about Shannon have been waiting for this film and are very excited.

NC: What do you think the importance of film is in science?

ML: I think films are one of the best ways to expose a very large number of people to science. My own goal is not just to educate people, but to inspire them. I think one of the most gratifying things that came out of Particle Fever was the number of young women it seemed to inspire. Fabiola Gianotti was a senior researcher who while we were filming became the spokesperson for ATLAS at the Large Hadron Collider, and she ended up making the big announcement on July 4th 2012 of the discovery of the Higgs boson. Fabiola has now become the head of all of CERN – she’s the first woman ever to take that position. The other was a young post doc named Monica Dunford, who I think became a real inspiration to a lot of younger women, to the extent that younger girls were writing her fan mail and arranging to come to CERN to meet her. 

Still from Mark Levinson's The Bit Player: John Hutton as Claude Shannon in Shannon's house in Winchester 

NC: What’s next? More films about science?

ML: My next project is an adaptation of the novel The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers. The story is about a biologist looking to break the code for life who gets distracted by Bach and music and the code for living. The title refers both to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Gold Bug, which deals with cryptography and secret codes. Amazingly, Shannon said that Poe’s short story was his favourite as a boy. So, another look at the intersection between art and science!