Science behind Angels and Demons

Will human-made black holes destroy the world? Could artificially created anti-matter be an alternative source of energy? Did Al Gore really invent the World Wide Web? Do super-secret super-sonic jets that can cross the Atlantic Ocean in about an hour really exist? The novel Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, released this past weekend as a major motion picture directed by Ron Howard, raises these and other questions.

According to renowned physicists who participated in a National Science Foundation video conference Tuesday, May 19th, some of what is divulged in the Brown novel is pure fiction, but much of it has a real basis in science.

For example, in the novel, Robert Langdon flies from Boston to Switzerland in a mysterious supersonic jet prototype, the X-33, which can travel ‘at the mind-numbing speed of 11,000 mph.’ In the story, the plane is owned by leading Swiss nuclear research facility the (CERN). (This plane doesn’t make an appearance in the movie.)

According to Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director-general at CERN, the X-33 is a figment of Brown’s imagination. ‘I’ve got a lot of keys, but I haven’t found the airplane yet,’ Heuer chuckled.

Heuer did confirm, however, the invention of Web software at CERN to enable scientists all over the world to share large quantities of data electronically. He added that anti-matter does exist and has practical uses such as in medical imaging, like PET scans. He added that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which earned wide media attention in the past year or so, is located at CERN, as Brown’s novel indicates.

Heuer rejected the idea that the large quantities of anti-matter as depicted in Angels and Demons could be manufactured, however. It would take billions of years to make, he explained. ‘And remember the universe itself is about 14 billion years old.’

One important feature of Angels and Demons is the LHC. The LHC was designed to accelerate and collide particles with the purpose of recreating experimentally some of the earliest moments in the evolution of the universe as well as provide some idea about the composition of 95 percent of the universe so far left unexplained by science. It is these experiments that raise the central questions about the existence of God and the origins of the universe that drive the plot of Brown’s story.

Physicist Leon Lederman compared the construction of the LHC to Galileo’s construction of a telescope and his use of it to study the stars and the motion of planets, vastly expanding the body of human knowledge in a very short period of time. ‘LHC is like that telescope. It’s a new tool, exposing to humanity parts of the world we know nothing about,’ Lederman said. ‘We’re looking forward with great anticipation to the discoveries made by our colleagues at the LHC.’

Lederman also discussed the serious issue of public fears about the safety of the experiments taking place in the LHC. These experiments do not reproduce phenomena vastly different than that which already occur frequently in our solar system, he pointed out. ‘The probability that anything would happen at CERN due to black hole type phenomena is essentially put at rest due to the fact that our solar system is pretty stable, and these collisions are not that menacing to our property and our survival,’ he said.

Another suggestion made in Angels and Demons is that researchers believe anti-matter may be a significant source of alternative energy at some point in the future. Fermilab physicist Boris Kayser refuted the point, saying, ‘Anti-matter is potentially a source of energy, but I would have to underline the potential because the amount of energy you have to pump in in order to make anti-matter collide with matter is probably in practice way more than any amount of energy you would get out.’ Wind and solar-derived energy are better alternatives, he noted.

The science in Angels and Demons, while flawed, allows scientists an opportunity to explain to the public the very real scientific inquiry into the composition of the universe and its origins, Kayser added. ‘Sure, the book by itself doesn’t explain very much of the science, but it may raise an awareness of the science in the minds of people who read the book or in the minds of people who see the corresponding movie.’ Scientists have organized some 50 public lectures to correspond with the release of the movie to deal with the science in more detail, he stated.