Image via Parsons’ home page

Columbia physics professor John Parsons lectured Thursday night about the science behind the upcoming film Angels and Demons.  Bwog sent our Fu Foundation Bureau Chief Sean Zimmerman, who actually understands these sorts of things, to observe and report.

Hollywood and science aren’t known to be fast friends, and explanations of “the science behind” often devolve into appopleptic panegyrics decrying popular conceptions of, say, cloning, or invisibility. Professor John Parsons, however, drily admired the whiz-bang world of the movies.  Showing the trailer for Angels and Demons at the start of his talk Thursday night in Havemeyer, Parsons explained that the explosions and intrigue shown were part of any physicist’s “typical day.”

To summarize Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons: Antimatter is stolen from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) run by CERN (that’s the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and hidden in the Vatican City during the selection of a new Pope. The antimatter will soon explode if it is not found, and Robert Langdon, the hero from Dan Brown’s other novel, The Da Vinci Code, is the man called in to do the job right.

Angels and Demons would have you believe that CERN gets its kicks from high-tech superweapons, secret underground bases, and fluffy white cats; Parsons, however, explained that although CERN is advanced, it is, in truth, anything but secret.  Founded in 1954 and located on the border of France and Switzerland, the international facility hosted 76,000 visitors/tourists during its “open weekend” last year. CERN’s scientific clout is publicly credited with the creating the World Wide Web in the late eighties and early nineties (maybe they let Al Gore help a little).

From CERN, Parson went on to talk about Angels and Demons‘ portrayal of antimatter. Far from being, as the film asserts it is, a fancy new discovery, antimatter has been haging around in the brains of scientists since 1928; its existence was experimentally validated four years later. Parsons explained antimatter’s behavior using an analogy with Tom Hanks: if we had Tom Hanks, and he met the Anti-Tom Hanks, they would annihilate each other and give off an enormous amount of energy. The film is correct in that CERN’s LHC does, in fact, create antimatter, and also that enough antimatter (that is, about a quarter of a gram) could destroy Rome.  However, the LHC produces only 2 nanograms of antimatter each year, so it would take 125 million years to stockpile the Rome-destroying amount.

After showing how friendly antimatter can be, Parsons launched into a quick explanation of his role in the current particle physics work at CERN as well as that work itself. CERN’s LHC is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, capable of slinging subatomic particles in a 17-mile loops at just below the speed of light. Once the particle has reached its top speed, scientists then add another particle to the reactor; the two particles smash together, and researchers like Parsons and his colleagues in the ATLAS program use their brand new detector to examine the debris.  Their discoveries will, he asserted, “revolutionize our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of nature.” Parsons went into some more detail about the ATLAS program, but that portion of the lecture veered into science that would be difficult to explain without some complex charts and graphs, and a PhD in physics.

Parsons also admitted that yes, the LHC might create micro-black holes, but those of you who wake up in a cold sweat from dreams of your house, your pets, or your computer being sucked into oblivion, not to worry:  if the little guys do show up, Parsons assures us that they will dissipate quickly and harmlessly, and we won’t feel a thing.

As for the future of particle physics at CERN, Parsons could only borrow an expression from Hollywood – “Stay tuned.”