Real science doesn't matter for movie's plot



Antimatter, the God particle, CERN's Large Hadron Collider and the enormous energy that particle-antiparticle annihilation would produce serve as golden plot nuggets in "Angels & Demons."

But the movie pitting science against religion includes claims about particle physics destined to raise scientific interest and stir some controversy.

The role of scientific fact-checking is left to Manfred Paulini, a particle physicist at Carnegie Mellon University, whose lecture on the topic is available on YouTube.com. Joe Boudreau, a University of Pittsburgh physicist, also offered a recent lecture about scientific issues raised by "Angels & Demons."

The plot involves a theft of antimatter from CERN's Large Hadron Collider -- which accelerates particles at high speed, then collides them to produce particles never seen before. The antimatter is hidden in Vatican City, leading to a countdown to annihilation that sets off a race through Rome to avert death and destruction.

Yes, antimatter is real stuff.

Not easily or cheaply produced, and requiring magnets and special equipment to keep it intact, antimatter cannot be stored in a test-tube-like container, as the movie portrays.

Antimatter has the same properties as matter, but its particles hold an opposite charge from regular matter. Fundamentally the same, antimatter and matter would annihilate each other in a big blast of energy or photons when combined.

Thus, the countdown.

As Dr. Paulini noted, if the movie's star, Tom Hanks, encountered an antimatter version of himself, the two Hanks would turn into light energy. Talk about star power.

In the movie, a quarter gram of antimatter is said to be capable of producing an explosion equal to 5 kilotons of TNT. But Dr. Paulini said author Dan Brown accounts only for the energy produced by the antimatter. He forgot to include energy from regular matter that is part of the annihilation.

So a quarter gram of antimatter actually would produce an explosion equaling 10 kilotons of TNT -- an amount approaching the 14 kilotons of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

To date, only a few nanograms of antimatter have been produced -- enough to energize a lightbulb for a few seconds if annihilated. "You can't produce that amount, and you can't store it in a bottle," Dr. Paulini said.

Not to expose the plot, but let's assume the antimatter does explode at some point. Dr. Paulini suggests the outcome would be far more profound than Brown suggests. Its annihilation and the enormous release of energy would produce radiation and shockwaves and cause serious collateral damage.

Other questions involve Brown's portrayal of CERN, the particle laboratory in Switzerland whose Large Hadron Collider and its 16-mile circumference crisscrosses the border into France. Here, Brown mixes fact with plot-enhancing fiction.

A working laboratory near the collider isn't possible. Radiation levels that the collider generates would do in nearby scientists, Dr. Paulini noted.

Secret production of antimatter at CERN also could never happen, Dr. Paulini said, especially production that eats up 80 percent of CERN's budget. Everything at CERN is public and all experiments are published, he said.

And most scientists do not wear lab coats. It's movie stereotype. Dress at CERN is casual.

"There is stuff that is scientifically correct mixed in with stuff that is wrong and is nonsense," Dr. Paulini said. "But I really enjoyed how well real science was mixed in with scientific fiction.

"I know colleagues who began reading the book and said it was nonsense and quit reading it," he said. "But the book is good entertainment."

Dr. Paulini said "Angels & Demons" should generate fresh interest in physics. The big question is whether the movie will take plot shortcuts that will skew the science even further.

In that sense, the movie for scientists could be a whole different (anti)matter.


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578. First Published May 15, 2009 4:00 AM


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