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TOPIC: Angels and Demons... [refresh]
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Blogger Kevin Black wrote on May. 25, 2009 @ 11:42 GMT
...or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Pseudo-Science.

Spaceships inexplicably whizzing by in space with mysterious 'anti-gravity' forces keeping everything nicely in place. Ordinary people transformed to superheros by ridiculously high exposure to radioactivity. Alien creatures that look mysteriously human (except for the green skin and claws) speaking impeccable English.

The typical scientific blunders that form the usual fodder of low (and high!) budget Hollywood productions have always left me suppressing a cringe as I try to get lost in cinema magic. However, none of this can hold a candle to the opening scene of 'Angels and Demons' released last weekend. As the crane shot zoomed down the 100 meter shaft down into the cavern where the ATLAS experiment at CERN is located, a small sideways smile formed on my face as they showed one of the wheels of the muon spectrometer that I have been working on for the last 4 years.

As surprising as it was to see that the Hollywood version of my experiment had a control room built into the wall of the cavern only protected from the intense radioactivity by a slim piece of glass, there was a bigger shock to come. As I scanned the imaginary control room for the next Bruce Banner candidate (of incredible Hulk fame), I discovered that the experiment (that a few thousand of my fellow physicists have spent decades designing, building, and now operating) had a secret. The secret dual purpose of the LHC is apparently to siphon off enough anti-matter and destroy the pope and Vatican City along with it!

Ok, to be fair that isn't quite the plot of the movie. Nonetheless, the basic premise of the movie is centered on the idea that a large amount of anti-matter is produced and stored by CERN scientists. Everything seems to be going well until one of the scientists is brutally murdered and his eye removed to pass through the retina scanners within the LHC tunnels (an aspect of CERN security which IS actually used).

Enter Robert Langdon. Although still peeved from their previous encounter as transcribed by Dan Brown's previous novel where he helps reveal the apparent truth of the Gospel of Mary, the Vatican is in a bind. After all, when searching for an antimatter bomb hidden in Vatican City who better to call than a bookish symbologist from just north of Boston (I guess the Ghostbusters were on vacation). However, it is soon revealed that the Vatican comes calling on him because it is suspected that an ancient scientific sect may be responsible and seeking retribution for the treatment the Vatican gave Galileo all those years ago.

Talk about holding a grudge.

Fortunately, I didn't have to cringe in horror of the scientific inaccuracies too many times during the film. The rest of the movie was filled with the typical Hollywood plot twists—trying to subtly manipulate the audience into thinking they had solved the puzzle when in fact there was yet another twist around the corner.

In fact, CERN does produce a fair amount of antimatter colliding high energy particles together. As far as I can surmise there are a few major scientific inaccuracies with the antimatter bomb premise: (1) in order to produce enough antimatter for the explosion that the (curiously model-like) female scientist describes, it would, in fact, take roughly 100 million years of LHC running; and (2) storing anti-mater is a bit more complicated than going to Radio Shack and getting one of those fancy glass containers with the flashing LEDs. Actually, the ATRAP experiment at CERN has produced and confined very small amounts of antihydrogen. However, storing it requires a complicated configuration of magnetic fields known as a Penning-Ioffe trap (see image, right). Unfortunately, it's not something you can power with a pair of AA batteries and slip into your pocket.

If you think that propagating false scientific information is harmless think of the recent proclamation of the pope that contraceptives actually cause AIDS. At least no one is likely to die because of the intricacies of a Penning-Ioffe trap being misrepresented. Not wanting to ruin the movie for those who haven't seen it, I won't rant about how the movie ends but only comment that Obi Won Konobi's successful skydive is, to say the least, highly improbable.

The book, which I didn't read, apparently includes Robert Langdon flying across the Atlantic in CERN's space plane which can travel "at themind-numbing speed of 11,000 mph." The effect was that the public CERN webpage included a long FAQ indicating that in fact the space plane was only Brown's ambitious dream.

There was also the character of the CERN director general (a suspected villain who was only posthumously redeemed) that got written out of the movie. Curiously, Tom Hanks has recently been asked to return to CERN and press the ceremonial start up button later this year. I thought about calling up the Symbology department at Harvard but somehow this mystery doesn't seem to require it.

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Leonardo Da Vinci wrote on May. 25, 2009 @ 11:54 GMT
" of the scientists is brutally murdered and his eye removed to pass through the retina scanners within the LHC tunnels (an aspect of CERN security which IS actually used)."

Harsh. Guess that explains all the eye-patch-wearing physicists at CERN though...

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Jason Wolfe/ wrote on May. 25, 2009 @ 17:13 GMT
I thought it was a good movie. I know what you mean about the antimatter plot. I kept thinking, how do you build something like a Hadron Supercollider and somehow overlook anti-matter "nuke" capability (and the required military


Which reminds me: do you know if they're going to turn it on and start smashing protons? If you do produce a black hole (and it doesn't swallow the earth) can I borrow it?

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Lawrence B. Crowell wrote on May. 26, 2009 @ 01:56 GMT
The amount of anti-protons produced is very small. A 100% conversion of matter to energy by violating the baryon number is the ticket. If you can do that we would have a hell of an energy source, and potentially hyper-bombs as well.

Lawrence B. Crowell

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Kevin wrote on May. 26, 2009 @ 18:21 GMT
Thanks Jason - in fact it would be essentially impossible for any rouge element to 'piggy back' on to an existing experiment at the LHC as happens in the movie. And yes - security would be a bit tighter then a french security guard sipping his espresso and smoking a cigarette nodding you in if there was actually something weapons grade at CERN.

As to the Black Hole - i will keep you posted..

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Jason Wolfe/ wrote on May. 26, 2009 @ 19:32 GMT
Thanks Kevin.

I'm curious: In your physics opinion, can the protons, as they travel close to the speed of light around a "circular" path, be treated as very long wave functions/superstring wrappings around a very large magnetic cyclinder? Superstring theory talks about strings wrapping around tiny rolled up dimensions, n times. While I'm not sure what it would mean experimentally, but it might serve as a nice model for calculating quantum relativity. Maybe we might even notice standing waves along the circular path.

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Jesse wrote on Jul. 9, 2009 @ 21:12 GMT
The Pope's declaration that contraceptives cause AIDS is not rooted in a misunderstanding of the's based on the notion that the contraceptives change human sexual behavior. The point that the Vatican is trying to make is that while condoms are pretty good at preventing pregnancy (which is a problem for them, of course) and the spread of disease, they also have a negative impact: encouraging promiscuous behavior. The Pope is asserting that the social change brought about by contraceptives negates their preventative benefit.

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Brian Beverly wrote on Jul. 12, 2009 @ 04:08 GMT

Do you have a study to back that claim up?

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Jesse wrote on Aug. 4, 2009 @ 19:25 GMT

My point was to clear up what it was the Pope is advocating, not necessarily to advocate that position myself.

quick article on the issue:



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