European ‘Atom Smasher’ Sees Stars

Director and cast from Angels & Demons movie visit the real scene.

Actors Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer, and director Ron Howard visited CERN to promote the upcoming movie Angels & Demons.

The European particle physics laboratory known as CERN is no stranger to the media spotlight, and its scientists are accustomed to famous visitors, having given tours to Nobel Prize winners, royalty and the occasional pop star. But last month saw a first even for CERN, as star actors Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer and star director Ron Howard, along with more than 180 members of the media and dozens of Sony Pictures staff members, descended on the laboratory for a media event to promote the upcoming blockbuster movie Angels & Demons.

Scheduled to premiere in May, Angels & Demons is the prequel to The Da Vinci Code, which was released in 2006. Both films are directed by Ron Howard and based on novels by Dan Brown. Hanks reprises his role as Robert Langdon, a fictional Harvard professor of religious iconology and symbology. Zurer plays the role of Vittoria Vetra, a CERN scientist who once studied antimatter. In the movie, antimatter created at CERN is stolen and used for nefarious purposes.

During a two-day whirlwind of interviews, press conferences, and photo shoots, journalists and scientists learned that Hanks, Howard, and Zurer are all fans of science, and took their scientific preparation for the film seriously. Hanks and Zurer both started reading (but never finished) Leon Lederman’s book, The God Particle, and Howard visited CERN in 2007 to do background research for the movie.

CERN is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. Built in an underground, circular, 17-mile tunnel, the LHC straddles the Swiss and French borders. The massive machine went on line last September but quickly developed problems with its superconducting magnets and was shut down within a few days. It is scheduled to reboot this fall.

Journalists at last month’s event asked the actors–and CERN scientists–about the reality of antimatter research.

“I found out today that if I stuck my hand into the particle accelerator, it would disappear, and antimatter would be created,” Hanks said during an evening question-and-answer period. “I’m willing to sacrifice my hand for science by sticking it in the LHC.”

While the plot revolves around missing antimatter, a major theme of the novel and the film is the perceived tension between science and religion. CERN staff and scientists point to the vast number of people from many countries and religions working together on the LHC as evidence that the tension alluded to in the book and movie don’t reflect reality. Hanks offered a more personal theory on how science and religion can gracefully coexist.

“Mystery is what I think is the Grand Unifying Theory of all mankind,” he explained. “When I go to church, I ponder the mystery. I think CERN is a beautiful place–they’re wresting with a mystery. Both answer both in ways that are different.”

This may not be the last CERN sees of Hollywood this year. Steve Myers, the lab’s director of accelerators and technology, seized on Hanks’ tongue-in-cheek offer to lend a hand at the LHC and asked him to return to restart the accelerator this fall. The actor said yes, but scientists will have to wait to see whether the as-yet-unknown restart date collides with availability in the star’s schedule.

Scientists from some 580 institutes and universities around the world use CERN’s facilities. Federal funding for U.S. scientists' work at the LHC comes from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

—By Katie Yurkewicz /symmetry magazine.