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Does it matter about anti-matter?

Tom Feilden | 09:23 UK time, Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The first of this summer's big blockbuster movies opens across the UK this week. Like the Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons is based on a best selling novel by Dan Brown.

This time Harvard academic Robert Langdon must foil a dastardly plot to blow up the Vatican. The twist is that the "bomb" threatening the Catholic Church is made of anti-matter stolen from CERN - the European Centre for Nuclear Research and home of the Large Hadron Collider.

Scene from Angels and Demons, Ayelet Zurer holds anti-matter bomb

The film goes to great lengths to lend an air of scientific authenticity to the action: much of the opening sequence is filmed in the underground tunnels and cavernous experimental halls that house the world's biggest particle accelerator.

Sadly, that's where Angels & Demons parts company with scientific reality.

Look a little closer and you'll see most of the hardware featured in the film is actually from the ATLAS experiment - the biggest, and admittedly most visually impressive, of the LHC's four main detectors. Looking something like an immense jet engine, but with all its components and wiring laid bare, ATLAS will search for the origins of mass, dark matter and even microscopic black holes in the high energy particle collisions at CERN.

But not anti-matter, which will actually be created and studied in the much smaller LHC-b, or beauty, experiment.

There's a problem too with the amount of anti-matter generated in the film. It would take billions of years - perhaps longer than the universe has been in existence - for the particle collisions at CERN to generate enough anti-matter to make a bomb. The film also manages to confuse anti-matter with the God particle or Higgs boson, and to imply that anti-matter somehow triggered the big bang.

But does that really matter? After all, Angels & Demons is an action packed thriller not a drama-documentary. Inevitably it takes liberties with the science, but if you're willing to suspend your disbelief it's an engaging way to spend a rainy afternoon.

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That was certainly the verdict at a screening of the film laid on for scientists from CERN in Geneva last week. Angels & Demons may not be Oscar material, but it will probably run X-Men close for top spot this summer.


  • Comment number 1.

    Surely all of the LHC's experiments create equal (tiny) quantities of antimatter?

    Each one collides pairs of protons and watches what gets created. Since every particle created must have a corresponding antiparticle, approximately half of the particles in each experiment will be antimatter (actually slightly less because you start out with two matter protons, which skews things a little).

    The difference between the detectors is not what they create, but which parts of the explosion of particles they study. ATLAS is watching for any new particles, so has to check in all directions, but LHCb is looking at 'low angles' (so nearly parallel to the beam) to carefully count particles containing bottom quarks.

  • Comment number 2.

    I have just realised how the confusion has arisen. LHCb is using those bottom quarks to quantify so-called CP violationin slightly more accessible terms, it is studying why there is so little antimatter in the Universe.

    This certainly doesn't mean it's the only place in CERN where antimatter is being produced, however.

  • Comment number 3.

    What? A Dan Brown story containing completely fabricated statements being passed off as fact? I'm shocked!

    There's a reason why the trope relating to authors who don't do their research properly being named after him after all - see

  • Comment number 4.

    Yes it does! The rise in creationism, healing crystals and disbelief in human's effect on the environment are all linked to scientific illiteracy in the general public. The hysterical nonsense about CERN causing the end of the world, reported even in the broadsheets, was a perfect example. If you wanted to blow up the vatican it would be far easier to do it with fertilizer than with anti-matter, but that wouldn't help fuel the anti-science paranoia that keeps peddlers of conspiracy like Dan Brown in business. I don't want to seem like a spoilsport, I'm sure most of Dan Brown's readers enjoy his work as the escapist trash that it is, but there are certainly many who believe his assertion that his writing is based on fact. Dan Brown is too influential to be allowed to get away with parading his prejudices unchallenged.

  • Comment number 5.

    In response to #4. 200 years ago virtually everyone believed God made the world in 7 days and that it was about 6000 years old. Those who still refuse to accept evolution are very much in the minority. The 'rise' in creationism is due to the political motivations of hard line Republicans in the mid-west of the USA. I am unaware of any significant'rise in creationist belief' in Europe.

    I've two degrees in genetics and have worked in science for nearly 15 years now: Jurassic Park takes equal liberties with science (starting with the fact that mosquitoes evolved after the dinosaurs died out) but I still find the film entertaining. If I wanted a science lesson I'd watch Horizon.

  • Comment number 6.

    Just on the point of doing your homework (or not), would Wolverine two weeks ago and Star Trek last week not count as big summer blockbusters??

  • Comment number 7.

    Forgive me if i am wrong but aren't Dan Brown books listed under Fiction?

    If you want scientifically correct books based on complete FACTS then go to another part of your bookshop/ library!!!

    As a action based thriller it is good (what Dan Brown is good at), a bit to similar to Da Vinci Code but all the same a good "escape".

    Places in the world like CERN and Vatican City only tell you the truth about what they want you to know about. Things happen in secret and not in the public eye for a reason. Generally because when they try and explain what they are doing the media get all "end of the world" on them (see any newspaper article about the CERN "Big Bang" experiment.

    A such people will always create fiction stories about these places because it fires the imagination about what might actually be happening behind "closed doors"!!!!!

  • Comment number 8.

    Maybe I did go a bit over the top! However, last week I went with my son's class on a school trip to a local (Bristol) wildlife park and was disturbed to find displays "proving" that Darwin was wrong, that the fossil record contains eveidence of Noah's flood, and that all human beings are descended from Noah's sons. Next to the gibbon enclosure was a large poster listing reasons why apes and humans couldn't possibly be related. A phrase that particularly stood out was "DNA- God's supercomputer". As I was the only person there who seemed to be worried by all this I didn't say anything at the time, but I may have allowed my annoyance to spill over onto this blog. I take your point about Jurassic Park, and am a big fan of sci-fi hokum myself, but the difference is that people DO take Dan Brown seriously.

  • Comment number 9.

    ok senojnerrad .... being a bit of a devil's advacate here....

    As science continually seems to try and "bebunk" the spiritual/ historical theories of the church and religion in general, why shouldn't someone put forward the case for Noah's flood if they as a company/ individual etc... believe that this is the case.

    Schools and educational establishments are always quick to put forward the scientific ideas without any counter balance from anywhere else. The Bible is as historically relevent as anything else we have. Some Bible manuscripts are amongst the oldest written world that has so far been discovered...

  • Comment number 10.

    It is quite correct that all the LHC experiments produce both matter and antimatter, in almost equal proportions. What is more, as a member of the ATLAS B-physics group, I can confirm that ATLAS (and CMS) will both be studying CP violation and the matter/antimatter asymmetries in B decays, being general purpose detectors. However, Tom is correct to point out that LHCb is a specialist detector, and is mainly to study the matter-antimatter differences in B decays.

  • Comment number 11.

    There are actually hundreds or even thousands of scientific and technical papers describing in tedious detail what is supposed to happen inside each separate accelerator and experiment at CERN - probably the majority of them are publically available. The information is there for anyone who has the persistence to find and understand it.
    What the CERN press office chooses to put out on one particular day is another question. There is a big difference between secrecy and focused communication. I expect if CERN decided to release every one of its technical reports to the media the result would be even worse and they would be accused of 'trying to blind us with science'.

  • Comment number 12.

    #8. I'm very suprised that a wildlife park would display nonsense like that. Fow what its worth 'Noahs's flood' IS in the 'fossil record' though. There is thick clay deposits across a lot of Southern Iraq dating from 4 or 5000 years ago consistent with a great flood. There is also geographical evidence of similar floods in the black sea and around Gibraltar from much further back.

    The main problem with explaining science to the public is that the concepts are quite complex, not usually that exciting and the 'big brother watching public' have the attention span of goldfish.

  • Comment number 13.

    Hello digispoonerta,

    I hope when you say you are a devils advocate it means you don't really believe what you are saying. Science is NOT trying to debunk religion, science is trying to find out how things work. If religion gets debunked in the process this is an accidental byproduct not the main aim. The reason mainstream schools don't (shouldn't?) balance science with religion is that they DON"T balance. Scientific ideas are painstakingly put together and only accepted after widespread testing by other scientists, many of whom are TRYING to prove the idea wrong. Religious ideas are based on historic documents written by people who had no other way of explaining the world around them.

  • Comment number 14.

    Of course Angels&Demons took liberty with science, that's the nature of sci-fi, is it not?
    The remarkable coincidence is the question of the importance of antimatter has suddenly become central to many heated debates across the internet. Why, because of the new cosmologic model based on the premise of gravitational repulsion between matter and antimatter. On first glance, this notion appears as sci-fi as Angels&Demons, but the simple fact is that no evidence exists one way or another showing the exact gravitational relationships between these two fundamental particles.
    Some of the best debate can be seen at the hypography discussion forum. (The preceding link is to the 2nd thread, which begins with a summary and link of the initial discussions on the lst.)
    If this new model is correct, then it would be an important lens change for viewing existing data. Because of this extreme importance, debate needs to be thorough, rational, and back by evidence/logic. Therefore, upon reading these threads, if you yourself don't have an objection, counter-argument, or consideration to present, please direct others who might to the conversation.

  • Comment number 15.

    ok .... senojnerrad .... again being advocate ...

    so what we are saying that historical records should be discounted unless there is scientific proof that the events/ processes happen. I would rather have it they they both work in tandem for the common good.

  • Comment number 16.

    Also historical artifacts/ documents cannot be discounted otherwise there wouls be no transalation of the Hyroglyths, no way of knowing what it was like to live in the 14th/ 15th century etc...

    The only way of knowing about these things has been science AND history joining together to explain things.

  • Comment number 17.

    [[ Spoiler Alert ]] (can you spoil a DB film?!?)

    I'd have thought hitting the river at terminal velocity (~220mph, iirc) and surviving would have been the been a big hint that the whole thing's a comedy?!? ;)

  • Comment number 18.

    #17 In the book this is explained away by him hitting white water which has much lower surface tension. Its still a pretty weak conclusion to a situation which was in no way vital to the plot..... you do raise a goood point however that this is MUCH more ridiculous than the anti-matter elements!

  • Comment number 19.

    look if you are one of those people who will sit there and diesect a film based on scientific principles then really you should steer clear of Dan Brown films, also nearly every single Sci-fi film ever made. Star Trek movies/ series always talk about Anti matter drives and proton tourpedos get over it.... sci-fi films are supposed to be entertainment!!!

    If you actually read one of Dan Brown books instead of just jumping on the bandwagon you will note that he writes down in the first page what is known as FACTS. at no other point does he claim that anything else is.

  • Comment number 20.

    in Angels and Demons ... the only FACTS he writes are:

    1) CERN is the world's largest scientific research facility
    2) They recently succeeded in producing the first particles of antimatter
    3) Antimatters is the most powerful energy force
    4) It is highly unstable
    5) They have promised to create antimatter in much larger quantities

    And he also says that the brotherhood of the Illuminati is factual (historically)
    Everything else is written in the context of a STORY, and should be seen as such!!!!

  • Comment number 21.

    oh .... by the way .... I enjoy reading watching doing science as much as anybody but to sit around and pull a film/ book apart based on scientific principles really doesn't get you anywhere.

    In fact maybe if scientific facts and lessons were presented in a much more interesting way then kids/ young adults wouldn't be bored rigid!! and more likely to take up the sciences at school/ uni/ college!!!

  • Comment number 22.

    Good grief! I wish I hadn't written in now! I'm pleased to see however that Angels and Demons is being panned, because, to be honest, my main problem with Dan Brown is that no-one seems to care how really boring and badly written his books are. I realise that's a subjective opinion before you take 5 posts over two days to point it out. I don't discount historical documents by the way, the old testament is NOT a historical document. I'm off to see Star Trek this weekend, and will pay no attention at all to the scientific fallacies with which it is most certainly filled. May the Force be with you. ;)

  • Comment number 23.

    I had trouble not shouting "Anti-matter doesn't work like that! Talk to a scientist for once!" when I heard about the plot. A normal bomb would have been fine, it's not as though any movie or book gets explosions right. Instead, Brown had to use an idea so ludicrous they had to make a movie out of it.

  • Comment number 24.

    CERN isn't the only place producing anti-matter - indeed it does naturally occur in some aspects (though for only brief amounts of time - how we discovered the positive electron in the first place). However, it is producign it in greater quantity than most other places, in a controlled manner.

    LHCb studies b-meson quarks specifically (as in the forward and rear cones of a head-to-head collision event b mesons are higher in content, and with lower background), and should in theory lead to answers to CP violation much faster. It is also more optimized for this study - such as the non-hermetic aspect of it (the fact that LHCb is essentially a cone extending from the impact spot, rather than the encompassing detector you get with the ATLAS one) and with the beam itself (they detune the beam in LHCb, for reasons unknown to me yet, though there will be some logic behind it somewhere of course).

    Why b? Because they are one of the two particles in the CKM matrix that we observe CP violation come from - only two of the nine parameters present an imaginary 'phase', and whilst it is near on impossible to measure this in most reactions (as we look at functions squared, so imaginary phase gets cancelled out), there are some where you can see them (such as instead |A|^2, we can do |A+B|^2 and the phase information is retained).

  • Comment number 25.

    I've just looked at the link someone has provided above -

    I would suggest you disregard it. Why?

    Hypotheses and/or axioms used by the Dominium
    1: Matter and antimatter were created in equal parts at the moment of the Big Bang
    2: Matter and antimatter gravitationally repel one another
    3: Black-holes are the result of an imbalance of forces

    Matter and antimatter attract each other. There is no 'anti-gravity'.

    This is actually where the term CP violation comes from. The weak force couples to left-handed particles, or right-handed antiparticles (don't ask me about chirality, few can truly say to understand it, its just something we recite) and when you perform the 'P' operation you are doing that chirality swap. C is charge - and when you perform the charge operation on, say, a negative particle - it becomes a positive particle. Therefore "CP" just means antimatter.

    Infact, CP violation is very similiar to T (time) violation - insofaras they are actually completely identical. Any process, basically, that you can run forwards in time, e.g. an electron travelling through something forwards in time is the same as the opposite - eg a positron travelling backwards in time.

  • Comment number 26.

    Did Dan Brown really claim:
    1) CERN is the world's largest scientific research facility
    2) They recently succeeded in producing the first particles of antimatter
    3) Antimatters is the most powerful energy force
    4) It is highly unstable
    5) They have promised to create antimatter in much larger quantities

    as FACTS?

    #1 is arguable based on your definitions, #5 is true although deceptive in this context, the others are just wrong.

  • Comment number 27.

    Omg, senojnerrad...

    ''I'm off to see Star Trek this weekend...(cut) May the Force be with you'' o_0

    Hehehe... ;)

    Btw... Science is a conformist religion too, and it does have it's heretics (eg. Tesla and his ''radiant energy machine'', which I've never heard of being disproved, just abandoned!)

  • Comment number 28.

    Did Dan Brown really claim:
    1) CERN is the world's largest scientific research facility
    2) They recently succeeded in producing the first particles of antimatter
    3) Antimatters is the most powerful energy force
    4) It is highly unstable
    5) They have promised to create antimatter in much larger quantities

    1) By numbers or countries involved, I believe it is.

    2) True

    3) True

    4) True

    5) True

  • Comment number 29.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 30.

    Respectfully Henry, please provide evidence to back up your broad-stroke assertions.

    Specifically in post 25 you categorically pronounce that there is no such thing as gravitational repulsion (though you used the comical sci-fi term "anti-gravity".) I'd agree that Buck Rogers "anti-gravity" belts and beams are pure fiction. However, how can anyone assert that primary interact between matter and antimatter is either attractive or repulsive when no experiment has been able to produce evidence either way?

    The only "evidence" you provide is reference to the popular-bias notion of CP-Violation. But a theory does not constitute physical evidence. To claim the validity of the notion of gravitational repulsion the Standard Model's assertion of over-arching symmetry could be just as easily be referenced. Remember the "violation" of the assumptions referenced in post 25, are an incompatibility between the popular-bias "solution" and the classic Standard Model.

  • Comment number 31.

    Re: comment #5 by Peter_Sym
    Apparently mosquitoes evolved in the mid-Cretaceous, not after the dinosaurs died out:

  • Comment number 32.

    my apologies if anyone thought that i was targeting them specifically, because that was not my intension...

    I am just trying to get accross the point that if scientists spent more time just enjoying films for what they are meant as (entertainment) rather than pick faults then the general public perception of scientists being geeks and that they are soooooooo boring wouldn't happen.

    That said I spent what was the most painful 2 and a bit hours of my life sitting through the film Titanic with a scientifically minded friend who promptly ripped the film apart, saying things like "that wouldn't happen", "it wouoldn't have done that" etc.....

    and by the way .... my list of 5 things that Dan Brown says are facts, were taken dirctly from the book...


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