Physicists Scrutinize Antimatter in Angels & Demons

May 19, 2009 by Lisa Zyga weblog
There's plenty of antimatter in Angels & Demons - too much, actually.

( -- Could the Vatican really be destroyed by antimatter stolen from a CERN laboratory? The scheme might work in the plot of Angels & Demons, the most recent Hollywood thriller based on a book by Dan Brown. However, real physicists are using the movie as an opportunity to talk about antimatter in real life - which has many uses other than mass destruction.

As part of the Angels & Demons Lecture Nights series, scientists from more than 30 colleges, universities and national laboratories in the US and Canada are hosting public lectures in order to tell the world about the real science of antimatter, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the excitement of particle physics research. They're showing that the movie, which captures the controversy of the age-old theme of religion vs. science, has a bit of controversial science, as well.

In the movie, an ancient secret brotherhood called the Illuminati manages to steal 1/4 gram of antimatter from a particle physicist's laboratory at the LHC at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). The group hides the antimatter in the city, and the fate of Rome lies in the hands of Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), who must prevent the antimatter from colliding with matter and destroying the city.

In real life, as physicists explain, 1/4 gram of antimatter is more than enough to demolish a city the size of Rome. When Hanks says that Vatican City could be "destroyed by light," he is correct: the only difference between a particle and its antiparticle is that they have opposite electric charges, causing them to annihilate into two photons when they meet. According to the formula e=mc^2, 1/4 gram of antimatter contains 45 trillion joules, the energy equivalent of about 10 kilotons of TNT and close to the 14 kilotons from the Hiroshima atomic bomb - but twice the amount of 5 kilotons cited in the movie (apparently the energy from normal matter was not taken into account).

However, creating this seemingly small amount of antimatter is actually a gigantic task. Currently, the largest producer of antimatter is Fermilab, which creates about 2 nanograms of antiprotons per year; at that rate, it would take 100 million years to make 1/4 gram. Antimatter is made by accelerating particles and smashing them into each other, a process which requires a very large amount of energy. For this reason, antimatter poses no realistic threat as a tool of destruction, since it requires much more energy to create than is released upon annihilation (which is also why it can't be used as an energy source). In addition, antimatter is not portable in real life, although in the movie, scientists transport it in a canister.

A few other discrepancies between the movie and real life include the movie's portrayal of CERN. It's not a top-secret science laboratory; instead, it has 20 member countries and involves 9,000 scientists from around the world. Also, while the fictional CERN laboratory is located inside the high-radiation collider tunnel 100 meters below ground, scientists' offices are actually in safe, above-ground buildings. And while the director in the book is a bald German scientist in a wheelchair, the real CERN's current director, Rolf Heuer, is only German. Another slight difference: while scientists in the book fly a glamorous "X-33 space plane," real scientists fly coach.

The lecture series also notes that antimatter has many useful applications, other than destroying cities. For instance, in PET (positron emission tomography) scans, a patient is injected with sugar through an IV, and the sugar mixes with a radioactive substance. The sugar goes to areas in the body with high metabolism, showing places of high activity. Meanwhile, the radioactive portion decays and releases a positron (an anti-electron), which very quickly finds an electron in surrounding tissue, and they annihilate into two photons. With many such photons, doctors can create a 3D image of areas inside the body.

Antimatter may also help physicists solve some of the biggest mysteries in science, such as the origins of the universe, why particles have mass, and what the universe is made of. For instance, physicists think that our universe contains so little antimatter because most of it disappeared very early on. In the first seconds of the universe, radiation created particles and antiparticles, which in turn annihilated to form radiation, and the process repeated. Possibly, a tiny imbalance between matter and antimatter (about 1 part in 10 billion) may have arisen, though scientists aren't sure why. When the radiation energy eventually decreased and could no longer create particles and antiparticles, the final matter-antimatter annihilations occurred, leaving a tiny excess of matter and a lot of radiation, which today can be seen as the cosmic microwave background.

Another interesting research area involving antimatter is the search for tiny differences between particles and their antiparticles. This symmetry breaking, known as CP violation, was discovered in the decay of particles called kaons, showing that some particles behave slightly differently than their antiparticles - but not enough to explain the asymmetry in the universe.

In short, Angels & Demons presents science as one might expect from Hollywood. Although the errors might perturb some physicists, others see it as a way to generate a fresh interest in particle physics by allowing them to speak out about the true nature of .

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User comments : 16

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1.2 / 5 (17) May 19, 2009
Antimatter is a very convenient form of energy. Accelerators like those at Fermilab, Jefferson, CERN and elsewhere can be reconfigured to produce significant amounts using energy beamed from orbiting solar platforms, our vast store of fissile material, fusion reactors, etc. Antimatter can be used for leaving the planet's surface in a big way which is perhaps one of the reasons we find them near the big cities. Antimatter is yet another form of freedom.
3.7 / 5 (3) May 19, 2009
Antimatter is a very convenient form of energy. Accelerators like those at Fermilab, Jefferson, CERN and elsewhere can be reconfigured to produce significant amounts using energy beamed from orbiting solar platforms, our vast store of fissile material, fusion reactors, etc. Antimatter can be used for leaving the planet's surface in a big way which is perhaps one of the reasons we find them near the big cities. Antimatter is yet another form of freedom.

I don't think that for now it's a viable source of energy. Yes, in theory what you say is true, but for now we have a huge energy deficit and using energy from solar platforms to create anti-matter doesn't really sound logical. Maybe in 30-60 years time.
4.2 / 5 (6) May 19, 2009
I'd much rather make it in space and leave it there. If it escaped, all you'd lose is the ship/station/colony, not a populated area on Earth. Stick to chemical rockets for shuttles, and use the antimatter for spacecraft. Unless we can guarantee perfect containment, it's simply too dangerous for use on an inhabitable planet. Unlike nuclear waste, it doesn't just sit there glowing!
May 19, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
May 19, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
2.8 / 5 (4) May 19, 2009
The best way to use antimatter for space propulsion isn't direct annihilation, but as a heat source for a working fluid. injecting small amounts of antimatter into water will produce a very large amount of heat, as most of the byproducts are absorbed. This, in turn, will produce VERY hot steam, which can be used to propel the rocket. One source I saw said that doing it this way would require 4 units of water mass for every unit of payload mass, with the amount of antimatter determining the final speed. For interplanetary travel, the amount required is milligrams per ton of water, which could be made in a properly designed factory. This would give us reasonable travel times to Pluto, and fast travel to the inner planets, with few problems. Dr. Robert L. Forward designed a rocket motor to do this using a simple tungsten cylinder with two holes drilled through it. Water went in the front, met two streams of antimatter coming in from the sides, and steam went out the back. Containment was inertial in the motor, as the AM didn't have time to hit the sides of the hole. It did require a means of storing it, and a very strong pump for the water, but would have been suitable for unmanned interstellar probes with enough AM. For manned travel, less than a year to anywhere in the Solar System.

But for simple power generation, no, it's very inefficient, because you waste most of the energy making it. Even with cheap, space-based solar power, it's better to use the electricity directly. besides, who wants a pile of the stuff sitting around? At least unused fissionables aren't dangerous beyond a few feet, and won't explode if the power goes off!
1 / 5 (11) May 19, 2009
Think positive. Antimatter is the most concentrated form of energy we can produce. Containing, transporting, transforming, applying- only tech waiting to be solved. This is what they're doing at plasma physics facilities right now. Fear of power is only a matter of perspective. Fear of god is the beginning of wisdom.
1 / 5 (10) May 20, 2009
Anti-matter does not exist.
1 / 5 (3) May 20, 2009
Can someone please tell me how to access the FORUM?
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2009
Well for the Roman FORUM you first need a time machine, then some way to travel to Rome. :-)

Oh and otto1923 is clearly an escaped mental patient. Why is anyone seriously responding to his loony rants about antimatter...
1 / 5 (1) May 20, 2009
Awesome! Maybe GOD will help you destroy the Vatican!
1 / 5 (4) May 20, 2009
Humans are often given gifts, insights into the workings of the universe. Messages from GOD if you like? The latest "Prophet" as some would call him, Einstein, enlightened us with his famous equation. We used it to create a weapon. The manhattan project developed it in no time at all with limitless funds. We could have used that development funding and those fantastic "Brains" to develop near limitless power through fusion in stead enabling us to become truly enlightened and to follow our dreams. In stead, we're still fumbling around with that goal lest we upset the oil barrons who falsley underpin the world economy binding us under their slavery. Anti Matter would go the same route - weapons, only this time we would have the means to completely and utterly destroy everything with a single bomb. Extreme caution is needed here lest we truly unleash Armageddon through a tiny little mistake? Maybe thats the message the writer is trying to get across.
5 / 5 (3) May 20, 2009
Sazzle you sound worried. What's one planet worth when we can inhabit 100? In order to hatch a species sometimes you gotta break a few eggs.
3 / 5 (4) May 20, 2009
God does exist. His name is ... Inevitability. He is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, but those who have not learned to fear him often suffer dearly for it. We will need to spread ourselves around the solar system and beyond because god ...
5 / 5 (4) May 20, 2009
Anti-matter does not exist.

Display of ignorance number one.

Can someone please tell me how to access the FORUM?

Display of ignorance number two. This one showing the answer to the question was already known by amc since it was the second post in the forum.

Yes its a crappy forum system but it is a forum.


1 / 5 (1) May 26, 2009
What's a forum?
5 / 5 (1) May 26, 2009
A place to discuss things. Whether games or politics or in this case science. Whether a concrete Roman building a town square or website.

For those posting the most comments the articles have little to do with what is discussed. Think of the articles as springboards and not as the sole topic. After all, no one has a seen a moderator here so there is nothing stopping people from going off topic.

Sometimes I think of the unmoderated nature of this site may be the reason it tends to be more polite than the moderated sites. There is nothing to try to get away with.

1 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2009
I know it's a little late to be adding comments to this but I am confused. I read the book, didn't see the movie so maybe the movie doesn't explain it well enough. For example, CERN is not a top secret facility in the book and is not all underground. Only the particle accelerator is underground and only the lab creating the anti-matter was top-secret... Anyway

This article says there is no way to store/transport anti-matter in a container but a few searches on the internet explain that it is possible with magnetic containers and this is what they use in the book. They also say that no one has ever come close to producing a 1/4 gram of anti-matter. This again is not true. A lab produced over a 1/4 gram just last winter using short bursts of lasers on gold. I thought this was supposed to be a physics website and they don't know this? Maybe I mis-read the article...

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