Angels & Demons - Separating science from fiction

CERN scientist Tara Shears examines the scientific reality of new film Angels and Demons

Anti-matter and CERN are getting fantastic exposure with the release of the film Angels and Demons today - a film adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel of the same name.

As a CERN scientist myself, when I heard that part of the plot was based in the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory I was intrigued to see how our work would be portrayed. I was pleasantly surprised on the whole; it was wonderful to see particle physics get the Hollywood treatment! However, when you delve deeper into the science behind the plot, there is a line to draw between reality and fiction.

In the film, Tom Hanks plays the Harvard academic Robert Langdon, who finds evidence that an ancient clandestine brotherhood have stolen antimatter from a secret laboratory at CERN, which they plan to use as a weapon to destroy the Vatican. Langdon and CERN scientist Vittoria Vetra then try to recover the antimatter to prevent catastrophe.

Well firstly, the research we do is no secret – in fact we are thrilled at any opportunity to share our work, and our results are freely available to everyone. CERN hosts the Large Hadron Collider - a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles – and are helping make discoveries that benefit industry, medicine, and other numerous other fields. For example, both scanning and web technologies have developed from research conducted at CERN.

The second big flaw in the film’s plot focuses around the existence of anti-matter and its use as a bomb. It is indeed true that antimatter exists, and that matter and antimatter annihilate on contact. Just one gramme of antimatter annihiliating with one gramme of matter would have the explosive force of 20 000 tonnes of TNT. So in theory, large scale annihilation of antimatter and matter could indeed be used in a destructive way, as the film depicts. However, in reality CERN scientists have only ever made enough antimatter to power a light bulb for a few minutes, and we’re far too interested in using what little antimatter we’ve got to investigate the laws of nature instead.

It would take over a hundred million years to make the amount portrayed in the film, and even if we could it would certainly not be used destructively. What’s more, even if it was created it couldn’t be transported, as the antimatter traps needed to contain any significant quantity of antimatter would have to be vast. In other words, this is where fiction has overtaken technology.

So, although the film blurs the line between reality and fiction, it does give us at CERN a fantastic opportunity to get people talking about the science involved in all aspects of our lives. It may not get you signing up to a PhD in particle physics – but it will hopefully at least whet your appetite to find out more.

The question of why there seems to be so little anti-matter in the universe today, when we think that half of the universe was made of it in the Big Bang, is one of the biggest mysteries in science. You might think that antimatter is science fiction, but it played a crucial role in making our universe the way it is – and the LHCb and ALPHA experiments at CERN are working hard to understand more about it.

Tara is an ambassador of the Science: So What? So Everything campaign which aims to encourage people to understand the science behind different aspects of their lives, including the science featured in the films they watch. For more information on the campaign visit www.direct.gov.uk/sciencesowhat



Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee