Angels & Demons: The Physics Behind The Movie (and The Book)

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angels and demons, ron howard, dan brown, Columbia Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Skylark Productions
One of the Angels and Demons official posters, Columbia Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Skylark Productions

I don’t remember if I already mentioned it on GeekMom, but I live and teach near Geneva, on the border between France and Switzerland, thus very close to the CERN and its Large Hadron Collider (LHC is used as a common name in the area, even by complete non-geeks).

I was lucky enough to attend with my students a conference by CERN physicist Rolf Landua (who could have inspired Dan Brown for his character Leonardo Vetra), in which CERN scientists answer Dan Brown’s allegations about antimatter in his novel Angels & Demons. Rolf Landua was kind enough to let me summarize his talk for GeekMom.

The conference was a great example of scientific popularization. Explaining complex questions such as antimatter to any audience sounds pretty difficult, yet Rolf Landua managed it perfectly. His conference answered theoretical questions such as “What is antimatter?”, “Where is it made?”, “How can it be studied?” and at the same time compared the reality of CERN’s research to Dan Brown’s hypothesis: is antimatter “the energy source of the future?” Can it be used to design a powerful bomb?

He wasn’t afraid to begin with the basis of particle physics, to use Einstein’s famous equation, and to remind the audience that all the matter in the universe is made of only three building blocks: electrons, neutrons and protons — then to illustrate the relationship between each particle and its antiparticle with cute pictures of Good and Bad Guys or… Angels and Demons, of course. He talked about the ways to create and study antimatter, usually antihydrogen, and its first production at CERN 15 years ago.

But he also talked about fascinating matters with philosophical and poetical implications. That’s what I love about physics.
One of these fascinating things, even if you’re not a physicist, is that particle and antiparticle are always created in pairs, just like fairytales about parted soulmates. That’s when energy is converted into matter. But when matter is turned back to energy, particle and antiparticle can annihilate each other.

Another stimulating fact? From what we know (I mean: what the CERN scientists know), a world made of antiparticles would look exactly like ours. Pretty disturbing, isn’t it?

The poets among you may meditate on this picture: we often talk about the light of dead stars, but there’s a light of space that doesn’t come from stars, a radiant radiation, looking like an aura of the universe, and that light is an echo of the Big Bang and the dead matter and antimatter that followed.

He wondered about antimatter’s mass and gravity with Newton’s metaphors, and mused about the picture of an anti-apple falling on a anti-Earth.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), Photograph: Maximilien Brice, 24 Oct 2005. CERN Press images.

Ron Howard, the director of the Angels & Demons movie, actually visited CERN in 2007 with part of the movie’s staff to find out more about antimatter and these mysterious “antimatter traps” used in the book to conserve and transport antimatter. He was trying to understand the scientific matters of the story, and to make the movie more realistic and believable.

Rolf Landua showed us a few scenes from the movie. Some of them made us laugh, such as the way they mixed our two mountain ranges and added Mont Blanc over the Jura to make it look more impressive on screen, or the incredible sounds they associate with the protons’ moves in the LHC.

But that’s fair play: a movie has to be impressive, to use pictures and sounds to tell its story whenever possible. He also tried to answer some of the book’s allegations about antimatter. Is antimatter the “God particle?” Rolf Landua anwered “no,” and reminded us it had nothing to do with the popular Higgs boson.

Can it be used as a new energy? Is it, really, “the energy source of the future?” Probably not. Antimatter offers no energy conservation, which is a big problem. Plus, antimatter production requires itself a lot of energy: that would cost about one billion more (American billion, I mean, a milliard for you British and French readers) than it would produce.

Can it be converted into a bomb? In the book and movie, 0.5 grams (0.017636 ounces) would make a bomb powerful enough to blow up the Vatican. That’s probably true, admitted Rolf Landua, since it would have the same effect as a 22 kiloton explosion (Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” was between 13 and 18 kilotons). But the difficulty (or the good thing!) is that the production of such a quantity of antimatter would cost an incredible amount of energy, money, and time. Probably one billion years, in the present conditions of production. Quite a long time to wait for a bomb.

Can it be trapped in a device similar to what we see in the movie? Yes. The trap exists. “I actually have it in my office,” Rolf Landua casually added. It was even designed with the CERN scientists themselves for the movie’s purposes, and they made it look believable and scientifically accurate, with the two magnets at the ends. Except for the light of the particle. “That’s only a LED. The particle wouldn’t be  luminous. But that’s far prettier, isn’t it?” said the physicist with genuine admiration. Such a trap was actually used to transport particles from the East Coast of the U.S. to the West Coast.

Has the Big Bang something to do with antimatter? Yes, but there’s a deep mystery in it, a mystery not yet solved. There’s a CERN video explaining the Big Bang in the guise of a mystery novel: the famous Bang should have produced as much antimatter as matter, yet we find no trace of that original antimatter. Where has it gone? What happened to it? They imagined a cosmic agency investigating about this disappearance, but all the leads turned short. The moon isn’t made of antimatter (a chance for poor Armstrong!), nor the other planets, nor the Sun, nor galaxies far far away…

Rolf Landua also talked about the positive uses of antimatter, to remind us that science isn’t only a way to design more and more powerful bombs. From what he said, antimatter offers promising ways to cure cancer, to both find tumors and destroy them with less side effects than gamma-rays. Of course, that’s expensive, too.

I’m sure all this will not convince the ones who believed the “CERN-Illuminati conspiration theory.” That will be easy to dismiss as “CERN propaganda,” even if Rolf Landua admits himself that he liked the book “very much.” But for all of us who don’t, who still marvel at the wonders of science and mysteries of universe, that was really illuminating.

One last note: one of my students asked what they actually did with the antiparticles after they were studied and measured. They usually don’t stock them, said Rolf Landua. That would be costly and useless. But they once kept an antiproton for 57 days, such a long time that they nicknamed it “Kurt.” Then Christmas came and the scientists returned to their homes scattered on the planet. They turned the machines off, and Kurt died, poor little guy. That’s a nice little anti-Christmas tale.

All of you teachers and homeschooling parents can also check the “Antimatter Teaching Module” on CERN Education.

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