Antimatter & Destruction: Particle Physics Plays Central Role in Angels & Demons

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The science-religion-crime-thriller Angel & Demons opened in theaters around the country last Friday, grossing $46 million over the weekend, according to tracking services. The Sony Pictures follow-up to Da Vinci Code is also based on a fiction novel by Dan Brown, and reprises a centuries-old grudge between (mostly) men of science and the faithful.

Director Ron Howard and screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman waste no time setting up “the conflict.” In the opening scenes, the College of Cardinals meets in Rome to elect a new pope. Meanwhile, across the border in Geneva, scientists at CERN—a real-life “atom” smasher—work to recreate The Creation: that moment 14 billion years ago when pure energy somehow begat infinitesimal bits of matter in a cooling-off instant after the Big Bang. In the ensuing dozen-billion years or so, everything we know today came to be.

But matter’s mirror image, antimatter, which scientists say appeared in equal amounts during the bang has largely gone missing. Theoretical physicists have proposed a number of explanations for where it might be hiding, including in alternate universes or yet-unknown dimensions.

A central character in Angels & Demons, antimatter also goes missing from CERN when it is stolen by the Illuminati to destroy the Vatican before a new pope is chosen. The race is on as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (played again by Tom Hanks) and the antimatter’s creator Vittoria Vetra (played by Ayelet Zurer) criss cross Rome to locate and dismantle the missing material before it explodes—and save a few kidnapped papal candidates from gruesome deaths along the way. 

Dramatic license rules in popular films where science is concerned. But both scientists and moviemakers agree that getting at least some of the science right makes for more-plausible drama. Researchers around the world affiliated with CERN, and its massive Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator are seizing teachable moments in Angels & Demons to bring particle physics to the public in dozens of lectures taking place from April to June.

“A film like Angels & Demons is a very nice occasion to make our science more public,” said CERN Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer this week during a Web briefing hosted by the National Science Foundation. “I welcome more opportunities to participate in such films.”

Film director Howard said he could get only a fraction of what he learned during his visits to the facility into his movie. “But it’s that much more than I would have gotten in before, so it’s been time well spent.

"I had some terrific sit downs with CERN physicists who explained what was feasible—what was good science fiction versus utterly implausible science fiction,” he told CERN’s Matthew Chalmers.

Portions of the film were shot in the massive cavern of the ATLAS experiment, one of the LHC’s half-dozen particle detectors, which is used by some 2,500 scientists from almost 200 universities and labs in 37 countries. (None of the CERN projects is secret, though.)  At 151 feet long, 82 feet wide and 82 feet high, ATLAS is the largest-volume detector ever constructed for particle physics. Its enormous doughnut-shaped magnet system consists of eight, 82-foot-long superconducting magnet coils, arranged to form a cylinder around the beam pipe where protons collide.

Digital photos were pieced together to create a backdrop of the laboratory that appears in several hundred effects shots.

ATLAS does produce antimatter, but the material annihilates in a fraction of a second. Scientists say it would take 10 million years to generate the half a gram that serves as the bomb in the movie. Since coming on line in 1954, CERN has produced only nanogram quantities of antimatter—enough to power a 60-watt light bulb for 4 hours, the say. 

Not to stand in the way of science, Howard and his set designers built identical sets in Los Angeles, where most of the acted scenes were shot. Scenes set behind the Vatican walls, however, were all conjured by digital technology, according to Chalmers.