Frank Close, OBE is Professor of Physics at Oxford University and a Fellow of Exeter College. He was formerly vice president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association), Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and Head of Communications and Public Education at CERN. His most recent book examines one of the oddest discoveries in physics – antimatter.
In the post below, Frank Close reveals the fallacies concerning antimatter in the Dan Brown novel (and now major cinema release) Angels and Demons. He has previously written for OUPblog on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.
Many people have never heard of CERN. Of those that have, most know it as the birthplace of the World Wide Web; fewer knew its main purpose, which is as the European Centre for experiments in particle physics. However, with the appearance of Angels and Demons CERN is about to become famous as a laboratory in Geneva that makes antimatter. These two statements about CERN are correct; much else in Dan Brown’s novel, which inspired the movie and has led to much of the popular received wisdom about antimatter, is not.
The movie is of course fiction, but the book on which it is based teases readers with a preface headlined “FACT”. This includes “Antimatter creates no pollution or radiation… is highly unstable and ignites when it comes in contact with absolutely anything… a single gram of antimatter contains the energy of a 20 kiloton nuclear bomb”. CERN is credited as having created “the first particles of antimatter” and the curtain metaphorically rises to the question whether this “highly volatile substance will save the world, or… be used to create the most deadly weapon ever made”.
Antiparticles have been made for 80 years; a few atoms of antihydrogen have been made at CERN during the last decade; antimatter, in the sense of anti-atoms organised into amounts large enough to see, let alone contain, is still in the realms of fantasy and likely to remain so.
In Angels and Demons the experimental production of antimatter being equated with The Creation is so central to the plot that a scientist tells the Pope the “good news”, even though it is decades old. Whatever led to our universe, it was not akin to the creation of matter at CERN, in either the fictional or the real world. It is not “something from nothing… practically proof that Genesis is a scientific possibility”. This is at best cod theology and non-science.
The Big Bang is the creation of all energy, all matter, and all of the known universe, together with its space and time. We cannot recreate that singular event, but we can examine what happened afterwards, within what became our present universe.
Energy, lots of it, is what turned into matter and antimatter. Energy is not nothing; it is measurable and when you use some the power company will charge you for it. When you create antimatter together with its matter counterpart, you have to put in the same amount of energy as would be released were they to annihilate one another; you do not get matter from nothing. Now reverse the process, such that antimatter meets matter and is turned back into radiant energy. That certainly is not nothing, as Angels and Demons recognises since the resulting blast is what is going to destroy the Vatican.
It is at this point that some in the US military seem to have adopted this fictional work as its practical guide to antimatter, and to have ignored its many contradictions. The preface of Angels and Demons described antimatter as the ideal source of energy which “creates no pollution or radiation and a droplet could power New York for a day”. Antimatter may not emit radiation so long as it stays away from matter, but in that case it offers nothing to bomb makers or power companies. In order to exploit this “volatile” substance, you need to annihilate it with matter, at which it releases its trapped energy as radiation such as gamma rays.
The statement that there are “No byproducts, no radiation, no pollution” is ironic given that it occurs within a few paragraphs of a warning to beware of the gamma rays. The US Air Force were enthused so much that in promoting their interest in antimatter for weapons they announced “No Nuclear Residue”. The media trumpeted that “a positron bomb could be a step toward one of the military’s dreams from the early Cold War: a so-called `clean’ superbomb” San Francisco Chronicle 4 October 2004, uncanny examples of fiction, written in 2000, presented as if fact in 2004.
As a major milestone in antimatter science CERN is indeed marvellous, but trifling compared with what would be needed to make antimatter in industrial quantities. Even were it possible, the belief that antimatter technology could “save the planet” is specious. As we first have to make the antimatter ourselves, we would waste more energy in making it than we could ever get back, so antimatter is not a panacea for “saving the planet”. Thankfully, neither will it become “the most deadly weapon”.