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Sexy physicists and a plot to destroy the Vatican

angels and demons.jpg
CERN at Hollywood Credit: Sony Pictures

By James Dacey

Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own. He stared up in terror at the dark figure looming over him.
‘What do you want!’
La Chiave” the raspy voice replied. ‘The password.’

For those of you not familiar with Dan Brown’s flamboyant writing style, these are the opening words of his novel Angels and Demons – a no-holds-barred thriller involving a sexy Harvard physicist, crafty assassins, and a plan to obliterate the Vatican with antimatter stolen from CERN.

Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor star in a film adaptation, which in on general release in the US this week.

I must confess I haven’t actually read the book (the prequel to the Da Vinci Code), but my friend told me about an event called Angels and Demons – the Science explained and I was sufficiently intrigued to pop along. There was some free wine and snacks too… but that had no bearing ;-)

The idea of the evening was to come meet some CERN physicists based at the University of Bristol and ask them absolutely anything at all about particles, the universe and everything.

I was at a table with James Jackson, a Z boson specialist who was certainly made to work for his free Chardonnay and peanuts. For over an hour he was grilled with “ok, this might sound silly but what if…” type questions, which invariably strayed into the realms of the metaphysical.

The event was organized by the Centre for Public Engagement at the University and is part of their twilight talks series.

Meanwhile yesterday at the real CERN, a very real drama was unfolding in the aftermath of Austria’s proposed withdrawal from the facility. They will be only the second existing country to do so since CERN was created as an act of European solidarity in the Post War years (Spain left in 1969 but then rejoined in 1983). In the past 24 hours alone, over 4000 people have added their names to an online petition against the proposal.

Naively assuming that all physicists would have heard this news, I found myself delivering a Dan Brown style page-turner when I mentioned it. The Bristol researchers seemed a lot more shocked than I would have expected.

“Austria may only be minor financial contributor but there is a danger this will set a precedent,” said Nick Brook, head of High Energy Particle Physics Group at Bristol.

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6 comments

  1. Ender

    The peril in the novel is that someone has stolen from CERN a gram of antimatter contained in a magnetic trap (???), and it’s hidden somewhere in the Vatican where it will explode. Robert Langdon manages to fly it up over Rome in a helicopter where it will explode without causing any damage (excuse me, wasn’t that a 40 kiloton explosion?), and then he dives harmlessly into the Tevere (!!!). Dan Brown should have better scientific advisorship. His novels are interesting for a rainy Sunday afternoon, so long as you don’t take them seriously. In “Digital Fortress he also makes huge physics mistakes.

  2. Cathy

    Intriguing stories. Especially the former.

  3. croghan27

    Diving into a river from a helicopter was accomplished several times a year by “Arnold” and now repeated before breakfast and offhandedly by several folks in that tough guy roles (and still having unruffled hair).
    As for amazing science …. is it all that more dazzling than some captain travelling 19,312,128 kilometres under the sea?

  4. Dan Brown should mature as a novelist now before its too late for him… “His teenage treasure-hunt” style (a.k.a. Da Vinci Code) is by now obvious even to the layman!! He should have atleast checked what it takes to get even a microgram of Anti-Matter, if he couldn’t find time to check out a few nuances of a portable magnetic-trap!!

  5. Ender

    “Diving into a river from a helicopter was accomplished several times a year by “Arnold” and now repeated before breakfast and offhandedly by several folks in that tough guy roles (and still having unruffled hair).”
    Interesting! What would the record hight for such dives be? Would it be consistent with the dive at the novel? I guess there’s a limit after which the hight wouldn’t matter any more, assuming there’s a terminal speed for a parachutist “free fall”, but I doubt you’d be able to dive unharmed if you get to such a limit (I remember Jaws, one of James Bond’s foes manages to survive a “free fall” dive into the ocean, but then again, that’s Bond :-) It’s never meant to be taken seriously! Was that in “Moonraker”?). It would be interesting if you could provide this information.

  6. Ender

    I watched the movie last weekend and enjoyed it thoroughly…as an ordinary thriller. There was no dive by Langdon, which improves the story, and the yield of the explosion is cut back from 40 kTon to 5 kTon. Still quite large, but who cares? Regarding the main theme, concerning the relationship between science and religion, I guess a few people got the idea.

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