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.

Sincerely,

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media
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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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