I’m re-reading Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons in preparation for the film release later this month. I’m quite enjoying it – if you’re going to write a fast-paced thriller, why not have lots of science and religion in it? Not many thrillers feature antimatter as a core part of the plot. Also, it’s great to see CERN feature in a book aimed primarily at an American market. In fact, the first 150 pages or so of the book are set in CERN.
However, it has to be said that much of the science is disappointing. First, there are the usual stereotypes – the CERN director is portrayed as a cold scientific type with few morals or empathy. The lab is full of all sorts of gadgetry incomprehensible to the hero Langton, a Harvard professor of religious iconology. More seriously, some of the science is poorly researched and inaccurate.
For example, a very basic component of the plot makes no sense. An anti-religious group is suspected of murdering a CERN scientist because he has discovered that ‘‘matter can be created out of pure energy, contradicting modern science and giving support for creationism”. Except that the creation of matter from pure energy is a standard prediction of both relativity and quantum physics (E = mc2) and we have been producing it in accelerator experiments for years. There are no implications for religion!
Such misconceptions run throughout the book. Elsewhere, it is explicitly stated that particle physics is about smashing things together in order to see what’s inside. This is completely wrong – in experimental particle physics, exotic new particles are created out of the energy of reaction (e.g. antiquarks do not exist inside protons, they are created out of the energy of proton-proton collisions). Much of the discussion of antimatter also contains errors – for example the ‘antimatter bomb’ of the plot makes little sense. While antimatter can and is created in accelerator experiments, only the tiniest amounts have ever been successfully stored (i.e. atoms of antimatter, not micrograms). Statements like ‘‘the electron is the antiparticle of the proton” don’t help either.
That said, I like the idea of a bestselling novel featuring antimatter heavily. Also, the ‘struggle’ between science and religion, a central theme of the book, is an interesting theme for a bestseller – although it’s a pity that the emphasis is on the extreme views on either side of the debate.
As you know, the film is about to be released, with the usual heavy promotion. Sadly, I hear that the science in the film version is cut quite drastically – the CERN angle is limited to a few shots at the very beginning, Langton never visits the facility, and the CERN director, a central character of the novel, doesn’t feature in the film. Almost all scientists in the film are show wearing white coats, reducing their role to that of lab technicians..oh dear.
In summary, it’s easy to take potshots at science in novels like this. Overall, I’m glad to see science mentioned at all. Pity much of it is left out in the film..
Update: The particle physics community in the US have organised a series of public lectures on the science behind Angels&Demons in order to coincide with the release of the film. You can read more about this here and see the lecture timetable here.
I’m hoping to get involved in a similar lecture at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin. I think it’s a good idea to tap into the anticipated public interest in antimatter. That said, I think such a lecture should also include a certain amount of discussion of science and religion, as this is a major theme of the book. More on this later…
I just read that The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy are hosting a public a panel discussion on Angels, Demons and Antimatter at the RIA on June 2nd. The panel includes some very good particle physicists like Alex Montwill and Ronan Mc Nulty of UCD, well worth a visit for anyone in Dublin. You can find details of the event and book tickets on the RIA website.