A Teaching Moment: Angels & Demons

By Sean Carroll | March 4, 2009 12:25 am

May 15 will be the premiere of Angels & Demons, the Ron Howard movie starring Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer, based on the Dan Brown novel. The narrative moves between particle physics at CERN and religious politics at the Vatican — feel free to provide your own characterization of that particular binary opposition.

Angels & Demons at CERN

We have no idea how good the movie is going to be, but it’s sure to garner attention, and it does feature physics prominently. So the Division of Particles and Fields of the American Physical Society figures that we might as well get some mileage out of it. They recently sent around the email below, encouraging physics departments to host “Angels & Demons lecture nights” to capitalize on the interest generated by the movie. Seems like a good idea to me — rather than spending energy finding flaws in the physics as portrayed in the movie (which are sure to be there), let’s grab the opportunity to spread the word about some exciting science that’s being done in the real world. If nothing else, the most common question about the LHC will change from “Will it make a black hole that will destroy the world?” to “Will it make an anti-matter bomb that could destroy the Vatican?”

This May, Sony Pictures will release Angels and Demons, a movie based
on Dan Brown’s best-selling novel that focuses on an apparent plot to
destroy the Vatican using a small amount of antimatter. In the book
and the movie, that antimatter gets stolen from CERN.

Starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, parts of the movie were
actually filmed at CERN. It’s not every day that a major motion
picture places particle physics in the spotlight. The US particle
physics community would like to take advantage of this opportunity to
tell the world about the science behind the movie, the Large Hadron
Collider and the excitement of particle physics.

Along these lines, the Fermilab, SLAC and US LHC users organizations
will join forces to organize Angels and Demons public lecture nights
at universities or other venues across the country when the movie
premieres in mid-May. While each institution will be responsible for
the local logistics of planning the public lecture, the Fermilab
Office of Communications and the CERN Press Office can help. A Web
page on the US LHC Web site (http://www.uslhc.us/Angels_Demons) will
provide you with materials that will include:

– a template PowerPoint talk, for your use if helpful

– a template poster to advertise the lecture at your institution

– tips on answering tough questions

– information on how to broadcast the lecture on the Web

If you would like to host a lecture, please contact Elizabeth Clements
(lizzie@fnal.gov) or Katie Yurkewicz (katie@fnal.gov). They will give
you more information and help you with publicity for your event.

While the movie contains a great deal that is not about science,
physics is central to its plot. This makes it possible for US
physicists to lecture on the science behind the movie, the Large
Hadron Collider and particle physics in general. The physics at the
heart of Angels and Demons–the potential destruction of the Vatican
by a small chunk of antimatter–calls attention to what happens when
matter and antimatter meet. This in turn calls attention to the fact
that the absence of practically any antimatter in the universe is
crucial to our existence. To understand that absence is one of the big
challenges of particle physics. Public lectures could discuss the
challenge of the missing antimatter, possible solutions and how
experiments in both the intensity and energy frontiers will explore
these mysteries.

In order to allow enough time to plan and advertise the lecture at
your institution, the time to get started is now. We hope that you
will make the most of this wonderful opportunity to get the public
excited about particle physics and the many anticipated discoveries
that lie ahead.


Boris Kayser, Chair
Division of Particles and Fields
American Physical Society

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media
  • Miguel Azevedo

    Have you _read_ Angels & Demons? It’s actually enjoyable (on the same level as the Da Vinci Code), but the physics part of it is utter crap (suggesting that antimatter almost proves the existence of god looks just like a creationist mind trick).

    Besides, it has a few condemnable values (such as lying to “protect the masses”).

  • Wha?

    “Dan Brown’s best-selling novel that focuses on an apparent plot to
    destroy the Vatican using a small amount of antimatter. In the book
    and the movie, that antimatter gets stolen from CERN.”

    I haven’t read the book, and if this is the plot, I absolutely will never read it or see the movie. I was a huge science fiction fan growing up, and the best authors tried to work out the logic and plausibility of some of their more fantastic technology. Dan Brown really goofed on this one, I think I would find it more believable if the plot was to build an accelerator capable of creating black holes beneath the floor of St Peters.

  • Wha?

    While I’m at it, if you want to know why the American public is so ignorant when it comes to physics its because of physicists promoting movies and other popular media that are just flat out wrong. Now you guys want to solve the energy crisis…HA!

  • Wha?

    ” Unlike solar energy, coal or oil, antimatter does not occur in nature; ”


    Dirac must be spinning in his grave.

  • Tom

    Dan Brown’s books are enjoyable. Remember, they are complete fiction ( I would NOT categorize Angels & Demons as Sci-Fi though), even if he attempts to underpin the plot with publicly plausible scientific ideads.
    I can only hope Angels & Demons (the movie) will be better than “The Da Vinci Code”, which honestly was pretty aweful.
    Personally loved the books, but am skeptical they can make a good movie from them.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    I’m surprised Ron Howard and Tom Hanks ever got to work together again after the truly dreadful Da Vinci Code

  • Mike

    Wil they correct the various mistakes from the book? The most glaring I remember was the monologue from the physicist about every particle has an anti particle, then giving as an example the electron and proton. Oops.

  • http://zenoferox.blogspot.com/ Zeno

    Yesterday I received an e-mail from Bill Donohue of the Catholic League in which he denounced Angels & Demons for being historically inaccurate and steeped in anti-Catholicism. Although Donohue is the kind of Catholic who makes anti-Catholicism comprehensible, his rant was entertaining in a bizarre way, especially when he made excuses for the Church’s persecution of Galileo. [Link]

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    My favorite piece of assininity from that novel is where Brown describes Lemaitre as a “monk” who came up with the Big Bang theory in 1927 in order to “prove” the existence of God.

    Sorry, the book got returned right there.

    How pathetic is Tom Hanks? What happened to the guy who did Road to Perdition and Saving Private Ryan?

  • Pingback: Turkeys and Angels « In the Dark()

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    One of my senior theses was on Mary Magdalene. I read “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” more than ten years before that stack of abrasive toilet paper they branded “The Da Vinci Code” ever hit the shelves. Despite the fact that “Holy Blood” was written by a pack of fraudulent cranks, I actually felt bad for them after witnessing the act of plagiarizing butchery Dan Brown put their nutbar hoax through. I liked the rest of the book even less.

    The same person who enthusiastically loaned me “Da Vinci” felt obliged to share “Angels” with me, and was rabidly curious about my impressions. Much as I didn’t want to let her down, I simply couldn’t get through it. I my inability to completely conceal my revulsion strained our friendship. Dr. Carroll, this cannot end well. The crackpots are down from the hills at the mere scent of this. I’m serious. Do not walk, RUN away from any forum remotely having to do with any juxtaposition of “Dan Brown” and things like “theory”, “history”, “science”, “education”, really anything involving neurons burning ATP. Outreach is great, but this is “Jerry Springer Physics” territory.

  • onymous

    The best part of Angels and Demons is the idea that CERN has a supersonic private jet to shuttle people between the U.S. and Geneva. Couldn’t we have had that written into the stimulus bill somehow?

  • Sili

    Well, I’ve been much amused by the dissections of various Browniana over on the Log. I still have no intention of reading him, though.

    I was much taken with HB, HG as a teenager, too. Pity it was lie.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    No Audrey Tatou = Lose

  • Bill

    Is it just me or is Tom Hanks looking more and more like his caricature as he gets older?

  • Winter Solstice Man

    Hollywood has done similar “public outreaches” with two other recent SF films, Jumper and the remade The Day the Earth Stood Still. Both were sub-par films.

    As for the outreach, did they really “reach” the public, or were they made up primarily of the college students and faculty where they were held? More often than not, the masses do not know about events at most universities, as these things are designed for the institutions and their minions mainly. Plus Hollywood gets nearly free publicity while trying to look like they care about educating the public – HA!

    Dan Brown’s novels are barely tolerable summer reading, in my view. I didn’t mind the Da Vinci film as much as I thought, though it dragged to get to the point we already knew and which did not shock as much as some thought it might. So Jesus may have been married and had kids, big whoop.

    Some day the masses will get their science knowledge from school, but not today.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    ““Holy Blood” was written by a pack of fraudulent cranks”. I think this is taking it a bit
    too far. Basically, there are three themes in the book: Jesus wasn’t really a God but staged
    the crucifixion and resurrection to make himself look like the Messiah (nothing new; I first
    heard this from John Lennon when he was discussing the book “The Passover Plot”
    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Passover_Plot ); the symbolism in Arthurian legend
    and similar literature hints at a deeper meaning behind the superficial plot (nothing new;
    a huge number of theses in the humanities have been written on such topics); the
    descendants of Jesus survive to the present day in Europe and have been influential behind
    the scenes throughout history (the idea that Jesus’s descendants came to France has been
    around for several centuries at least, but the idea of them carrying on the bloodline in some
    organised form is new). The authors then connect these three theses together (the
    descendants placed hints in literature, painting etc to indicate to the cognoscenti what
    really happened with the life and death of Jesus). The connection is not all that far-fetched,
    given the input data. (As a fourth point, one could add that evidence of all of this was
    discovered at Rennes-le-Chateau. Interestingly, this fourth point figures in The Da Vinci
    Code only in that one of the characters is named Sauniere.)

    The problem is that crucial portions of the input data were faked, as described briefly in
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priory_of_Sion. (Note that Robert Plant once had a band
    called the Priory of Brion, playing on this and Monty Python’s famous film.) Actually,
    the story of how Plantard set up his hoax, was found out, sentenced to silence and died
    a broken man is probably more entertaining than Brown’s book (and it is also true).

    I think the authors actually believed that they drew the correct conclusions from the data.
    Given the data, and the background knowledge to put it together, I would probably have
    drawn the same conclusion. Thus, I don’t think one can describe them as “fraudulent”.
    “Cranks”, perhaps, given some of their other interests, but not on the basis of the book
    The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Plantard, of course, was a first-class con man.

    (I picked up the book by chance in a bookshop in Birmingham in 1984. That night at
    dinner, a librarian I was staying with said “it’s entertaining but I don’t think it adds up”.
    It turns out she used to work in a shoe store—the shoe store in which Black Sabbath went
    out and bought shoes when they earned their first money, having shared a pair between
    them before that. (I had heard the story before, but it was interesting to hear it confirmed
    by a Miss Marple type who definitely wasn’t a Sabbath fan.) I think the book is very
    entertainingly written, though knowing that one of their main pillars of evidence is
    fake takes away some of the punch. I read Brown’s book (picked up by chance in a bookshop
    in Gothenburg) while in hospital. (I also read a couple of books by John Barrow then, so I’m
    safe.) It is also entertainingly written, but he makes several errors which indicate that
    he is not as familiar with his material as he should be. The movie is about what one could
    expect from an adaptation of the book. The best scene is at the beginning when the
    Hanks character is lecturing on symbology.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I find it hard to imagine “HB, HG” was a terribly sincere effort, but it’s been a while. I read it at the recommendation of my advisor, to give me some perspective on “the bullshit that’s been written about Mary Magdalene”. He had such a loathing for the work and its authors I had it in my head the thing was a joke from the beginning. An entertaining joke, mind you, concocted by some odd characters, but fraud all the same. I’m pretty sure this was a couple years after Plantard was thoroughly discredited, but I don’t think he was held by serious scholars to be reputable even well before. If the other authors believed even half of what they wrote, they strike me as even more cranky than before.

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh

    Excellent post and an interesting idea. I’ve read the book and will get in contact with the organisers..

  • http://centuryofprogress.wordpress.com/ BobN

    Hollywood has always seen scientists as mad, and science itself as something to be feared. I don’t see how this movie (or any movie I can think of, for that matter) is good PR for the physics community. It’s dumbed-down pseudo-science. Why lend it any authority? Just on the off chance it will spark some young people into taking up physics?

  • coolstar

    LMMI has it exactly right on this one, RUN, RUN for your LIVES! I actually read the Brown novel “Deception Point” and it was SO bad, on SO many levels (science, politics, aeronautics, writing etc. etc) that I swore off EVER giving that hack any of my money again. He gives SF a bad name and has earned orders of magnitude more than many good SF writers who both CAN write and actually know some science. Oh, I had seen the Da Vinci Code, so I should have known better. I actually felt sorry for Tom Hanks having to say some of those lines much as I do for Star Wars actors having to repeat unactable George Lucas dialogue.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’m kind of hoping that some of that really good sci-fi makes it to a theater some day, so people like Dr. Carroll can sink some real teeth into it. My fear is the next installment will involve the Watchmen.

    Now I loved comics (X-Men fanatic as a wee lad), but knew zip about this whole Watchmen thing unti now. From the reviews I’ve gleaned that the novel/film features a “quantum superhero” who, near as I can tell, does not experience the flow of time, but rather can perceive the block universe in toto, and maybe the many-worlds version. Maybe. That and he’s a glowing blue naked dude who’s reportedly hung like a…well, like an atomic Smurf with gigantism, I guess. Which kinda shoots the whole edutainment potential to hell, I imagine, if it ever lurked somewhere below the sapphire surface of Dr. Manhattan. Sigh.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    I would just like to point out that readers here might appreciate Cecil’s wisdom
    at http://www.straightdope.com/ where he answers all manner of questions.
    Today’s article addresses the Higgs particle (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2850/what-is-the-god-particle).

    Cecil Adams (perhaps a nom de plume for one or several authors) provides humorous
    answers to many topics, including many involving the sciences. They are understandable
    for the lay reader. Many questions have a background which is somewhat shaky,
    involving, say, conspiracy theories, but Cecil always manages to provide an answer
    which would make the Skeptical Inquirer proud.

    An article somewhat related to the original blog post here:

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting



    Leaking electrons? So Dr. Manhattan is surrounded by the glow of Cerenkov radiation? I guess the woman in the picture isn’t just getting a kiss, she’s getting a very lethal dose of beta rays.

  • Rohan

    I’m confused.
    Does every Jesus have an anti-Jesus?
    Is that the nature of this argument?

  • Pingback: Boris on Angels and Demons | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

  • Jimbo

    Just saw it, loved the movie, but the physics was sorta loose. Did not stay for the credits, but does anyone know if there was a technical advisor for the physics part, or was it just lifted from the DB novel ?
    Interesting to compare enegies.
    A Planck mass (~22ug ~ 10^19 anti-protons trapped)= 2GJ.
    Wiki sez: 1 ton TNT ~ 4GJ blast yield.
    A&D screenplay predix ~ 5 kiloton blast ~ 20 TeraJoules.
    Thus proving that quantum gravity is essential to repay the catholic church for Galilei, the inquisition, and countless child abuses & molestations.
    Long live the illumniati !


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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