Angels, demons and antimatter

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…

Update II:

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.


Filed under Public lectures, Science and society

13 responses to “Angels, demons and antimatter

  1. Pingback: Daily News About Dan Brown : A few links about Dan Brown - Wednesday, 13 May 2009 07:18

  2. Dear Dr O’Raifeartaigh,

    Antimatter has now even entered into the public conscience with Angels & Demon’s. It is a bit sad that this movie might scare the public against future antimatter studies … that would be a horrible shame. I contacted you about a year ago about the new cosmologic model that places antimatter and gravitational repulsion as vital and central in forming the Universe viewable today.

    My writing and outlook have changed quite a bit. The Dominium model has been supported several times by astonishing revelations. For example, the ESA/NASA Jan 09,09 release of data showing the mapping of a giant antimatter cloud surrounding the supermassive black-hole at the center of our galaxy. This surprising story matched a blind conclusion of the Dominium model that in order to be stable/inactive, the supermassive black-hole at our galaxy’s center MUST be surrounded by a cloud of antimatter.

    Debate has become much more refined as I understand the rules of scientific “e”bate style. I’d love to have you chime in.

  3. cormac

    Hi Hasanuddin,
    yes it would be a pity if antimatter became the great bogeyman in public consciousness. I find it frustrating that the price of ‘getting the story out there’ seems to be misinformation, time after time.
    Re galaxial antimatter cloud, I’ve heard of this, but know almost nothing about it – must read up on it…

  4. hey buddy, I was at that lecture and I had two questions that I didn’t think were answered properly, maybe you can help:

    1) Does the Steady State Theory or any of its variants allow for Anti-Matter?

    2) What is the significance of Anti-Matter to Quantum Entanglement?

    can you help?

  5. Hi Cormac,

    The official release of the findings of the Integral satellite were release by NASA and ESA on the same day with largely different spins. The NASA article, concludes (not very convincingly) that the antimatter originates from binary stars solely on the fact that near the lopsided bump in this structure are a cluster of neighboring binary stars. This appears to be a twist on a classic fallacy building an argument over “Prope hoc ergo propter hoc,” or “near this therefore because of this.”
    The ESA story, in contrast is a bit more grounded, though in step with traditional rote.

    The most amazing thing to me is that I never heard of the giant antimatter cloud surrounding the supermassive black-hole at the galactic center until very recently. However, one of the categorical conclusions that the Dominium made early on was the prediction that there MUST be micellular antimatter surrounding and blocking the gate interface mouth of the monster at the galactic center. This conclusion is central to the entire model. Because I had never heard of any celestial large accumulations of antimatter, I always felt that this prediction was the weakest part of the entire model. When I came across the NASA and ESA articles this winter I almost fainted!!!

    Not only was the prediction of the necessary existence of a micellular antimatter cloud (MAC) surrounding the galactic center not the weakest part of my whole model… but it became the strongest by its validation.

    Please come, and tell your friends of the pivotal debate now brewing over this new model at

  6. cormac

    Hi Diarmaid,
    Re steady-state, I think the theory does predict antimatter, just as the BB model does. However, the steady state model has been pretty much knocked out by the fact that observations show that our universe is now very different now from what it was in the past.
    Re antimatter and quantum entanglement, I’m not aware of any connection – except that antiparticles can be entangled just as ordinary particles are..

  7. hey thanks for this!
    first off I’m not a physicist so my knowledge is floating on the surface and not too deep.

    My interest in the general idea of the Steady State Theory rather than its complete model comes from something I heard Michio Kaku say about ‘big bangs’ continually occuring in a sea of nothingness.

    So maybe how the Perfect Cosmological Principal is described is wrong, but does that mean that Standard Cosmological Model is correct?

    Reading about the conservation law in Richard Feynman’s book ‘six easy pieces’ made me think that surely the universe could operate on a similar principal with regards to ‘beginnings and endings’ in there isn’t any.

    turning to quantum entanglement, I suppose what I was getting at was that perhaps there could be a ‘cross entanglement’ if matter and anti-matter are twinned then surely all the matter we perceive could be entangled directly with all the anti-matter, with a corresponding anti-matter mirror ‘universe’ looking for what they would call ‘anti-matter’ which would be normal matter to us.

    as for where all the anti-matter could be? well as ronan says there is a lot of space in between the nucleus of an atom and the electrons….in computer programming we have Nested Loop’s – “A nested loop is a loop within a loop, an inner loop within the body of an outer one.”…

    I use that as a metaphor rather than a physical model but I would say this idea of nested loops will be important to physics, even the fact that the shape of the LHC is itself a loop should tell us something. To borrow a concept from biology “structure and function are intimately connected” perhaps we are creating a macro equivalent of a sub quantum process in order to realize it??

    What do you think Cormac?

  8. Diarmuld B,

    I know you are addressing Cormac, but may I be bold enough to insert the position of the Dominium. You will be glad to hear that this modern deductive analysis aligns with the concept you first read about from Michio Kaku and then saw compatible to Feynman.

    I’m not sure what you meant by “So maybe how the Perfect Cosmological Principal is described is wrong, but does that mean that Standard Cosmological Model is correct?” If you elaborate.

    As far as your musings about the possibility of mirror antimatter universes… well, you’re on your way the understanding the Dominium. However, the new model does not suggest mirror Universes, rather mirror galaxies. (Which is conceptually virtually the same thing, though the scales are altered.

    As far as antimatter hiding in the space between atoms–that notion is clinically disproven, many times over. We have much experience with antimatter in the lab. We might not know everything about it yet… but we know many things it is not. It is definitely condusive to hide within preexisting matter.

  9. hey buddy

    just cause the steady state theory has flaws does that have to mean that some variation of it could not be true and because it has those flaws does that make the big bang theory correct? thats what I was saying there.

    I didnt really mean that it would be inside or hide inside the space between the atoms nucleus and its electrons, I meant that it could be looped inversely within the same co-ordinates but undectectable…i interupt myself here cause my understanding of physics is so basic I couldn’t describe for you exactly what a dimension is, or what energy is, so def not trying to pass myself off as being able to back these ideas up…but continuing take this as a metaphor, i meet a girl in a pub, shes sitting beside me at the bar and I start talking to her I say “hey what type of beer do you think I should get” at the exact same time I am thinking in my head, “shes gorgeous and I want to get into her pants” within the first sentance the second sentance is looped inside (entangled) but undectable…

    haha I gotta stop here and actually learn some real physics not my own brand!!!

  10. Hi Diamuid B,

    I agree with you that the steady state idea of an infinite number of Big Bangs sequenced like a string of pearls forward and back over time is a very compelling argument and could fit in with any number of different models.

    I also agree that the notion of secret hiding places that are there, but not there, is not supported by any physical evidence. Such a scenario sounds more like a fallacious djinni-constructt designed to magically fix a paradox without ever addressing either the parameter or underlying actual dynamics.

    Though at the same time, don’t shame yourself into only thinking as the herd has always thought. Many questions are yet to be solved. The reason that they remain unsolved is because folks haven’t asked the right questions yet.

  11. I would like the name of the city where they have the tunnel that are built around the entire city. Where this is taken place, also explain the anti matter and the matter. I do hope I have it right please correct me if I don’t. I’m am very interested in this project, and would like to have more facts on this. Thank You Rebecca

  12. cormac

    Hi Rebecca, the city is Geneva in Switzerland, and the tunnel lies 100 m below; it is actually a ring 27 km long that goes right under the Franco-Swiss border.
    In the tunnel is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest particle accelerator, run by CERN, the European Centre for Particle Physics. What a particle accelerator does is to accelerate tiny bits of matter to extremely high speeds, and slam them together. Out of the energy of collision, new, even smaller particles are created, some of positive electric charge and some negative (matter and antimatter).
    You can find a ery nice summary of CERN, the LHC and the creati od matter and antimatter at the CERN homepage

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