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Review of Angels and Demons

by Patricia Rankin
Professor of Physics and Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Diversity and Development
University of Colorado at Boulder
(for identification purposes only)

Warning – Spoilers ahead

It is hard not to like a movie which features CERN, antimatter, Tom Hanks, and has a smart and attractive woman physicist as a key character. Angels and Demons is fast-paced enough that temporarily suspending judgment on the science while sitting back and enjoying the entertainment is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours
but how accurate is the science?

The particle physics community has done a good job of getting out the message that CERN is not a top secret facility and that, while antimatter exists, the possibility of antimatter weapons is not something to lose sleep over (see to link to lots of materials about CERN, the Large Hadron Collider, and antimatter). Essentially matter and antimatter are produced in equal amounts when energy is converted into mass (the favorite equation E=mc2 governs this) and when antimatter comes into contact with matter it annihilates (the movie gets it wrong when it says antimatter “combusts” combustion is a chemical reaction involving a fuel and an oxidant) producing energy. Antimatter is not produced from nothing so it is not a solution to the energy crisis. You can use magnetic fields to keep electrically charged particles of antimatter from coming in contact with matter but the amount of antimatter needed to make a bomb capable of destroying Vatican City would take many, many millions of years to produce using today’s technology and could not be contained for several hours in a small flask with magnetic fields powered by a battery.

The other big particle physics concept mentioned in the movie is the “God Particle” known more prosaically as the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is indeed a particle that many particle physicists are hoping to detect in their experiments when CERN’s LHC is turned on ( and it is the particle that holds the clue to why all the other particles we know about have mass.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with movie makers and/or Angels and Demons author Dan Brown exaggerating the ease with which antimatter can be made and stored to provide a plot element that can drive a story. I am more concerned at some of the other liberties with science and technology taken during the movie, which have received less attention.

Let’s look at the pivotal scene were the antimatter canister is recovered the cold temperature of the crypt has cut the battery lifetime a couple of minutes, requiring a heroic helicopter flight to get the antimatter high enough above Rome so that its detonation will not cause massive destruction. Since batteries rely on chemical reactions to work, their performance is affected by temperature, and batteries operating at low temperatures produce less current and work less well (conversely storing batteries at low temperature can increase their life). Helicopters, however, are not designed to ascend rapidly (typical rates of climb are around 2,500 feet/minute) and do not operate at the high altitudes passenger planes typically fly at. Since most helicopters operate below the height at which you can safely parachute out (for experts this is set at about 2000 feet), I do not know if parachutes are standard equipment on board but I am pretty sure that any deployed parachutes in the vicinity of the shock wave of the antimatter/matter annihilation would be destroyed.

In another key scene Robert Langdon is trapped in a “hermetically-sealed chamber” inside the Vatican Archives when the air supply is turned off. There is a lot of bad science here. First, human beings are not designed to transition rapidly between regions of high pressure and low pressure (think about how slowly divers are taught to ascend) and regions of low pressure and high pressure do not rely on glass partitions to separate them (airplanes have small windows for a reason). The “glass” was hard to break though so maybe they used nano-composites (which do not exist). Second, when the airflow was turned off (and you would think there would be a safety interlock to prevent this) the people inside the room would not feel the effects straight away and would have some time before they used up the oxygen in the room. The biggest problem though is that the rooms were designed to preserve the manuscripts. If you wanted to stop the manuscripts from coming into contact with oxygen, the best way would be to put them in containers filled with an un-reactive or inert gas that would not interact with them.

I am also going to criticize the frequent references to the four elements of science fire, water, air and earth because these are the four elements of Aristotle’s science, not ours (though I loved the ambigrams). One of Galileo’s most important achievements was to challenge the Aristotelian worldview and highlight the importance of experiments in determining how the world worked. The Periodic Table of Mendeleev (a great site to explore is shows how more than a hundred elements can be grouped by their properties and how these properties are in turn related to their electronic structure. On a related note, Galileo probably used parchment not papyrus.

I want to finish though by going back to one of the things I did like: this movie had an Italian woman physicist in it who did not make this woman physicist cringe. I do not know if the producers or the author know that Italy is one of the few Western countries where women make up a substantial percentage of physicists. I do know that physics is a great career for smart women!

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