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Sharon Glassman

Sharon Glassman

Posted: May 17, 2009 03:20 PM

Angels and Demons -- Does Hollywood Science Equal Good Science?


Attention: Science spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk of "Enlightenment"...

Angels and Demons, Dan Brown's first novel-turned-second book adapted for the screen, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, earned $48 million in its opening weekend.

Roger Ebert gave it three stars and a warning that logic was not one of Angel's co-stars.

But how does the movie Angels and Demons rate with scientists?

According to a fact vs. fiction overview presented by physicist Patricia Rankin, a professor at CU Boulder the answer is: hilariously. And she means that in the nicest possible way.

Before a packed lecture hall on an otherwise irresistibly outdoorsy Colorado Saturday, Rankin offered a crash course on the true physics of Angels and Demons for non-scientists. It's a radical idea in one sense -- kinda like the College of Cardinals hosting a mixer for atheists. It also feels extremely timely.

If Meryl Streep, as Julia Child in the upcoming foodie film, Julie and Julia, addressed a potential soufflé crisis with a line like, "I need 1500 liters of cask-aged balsamic or she's gonna blow!" foodies would be on the fact-crash in a flash.

But how much Holly-sci are we digesting with our popcorn?

Enter, Rankin. As a physicist, she spends her time looking at how the universe might have started. A key part of her inquiry involves antimatter. Antimatter, it seems, is the Yin to the Yang of the stuff most of us think of as stuff. We couldn't exist without it. And that's just the start of things.

'The study of antimatter is related to questions about the start of time," Rankin tells the crowd. Which is a very cool, if not exactly human-populated idea.

Enter: Angels.

Antimatter is The MacGuffin -- the desired thing -- that sets the movie's plot in motion. The bad guys have stolen a 1/4 gram of it from a "top secret" facility called Cern in Switzerland. Tom Hanks gotta get the bottle of antimatter back. Or else the world will go ka-boom!

Rankin starts her science-test of Hollywood with a slide showing a picture of CERN -- the European Organization for Nuclear Research . In the movie, it's a "top secret," hush-hush kind of place full of folks in white coats. Très cool-looking.

In reality: Cern is not top secret, Rankin says. It's bustling.

As the for the groovy lab-wear? She shakes her head and smiles.

"One of the great tragedies of my life is not getting to wear a lab coat," she admits.

Okay. So CERN has been Botoxed a bit. We can handle that. But what about the stolen antistuff?

The antimatter stolen from CERN in Angels rests in an elegantly small, imminently hide-able cigarette-pack-like container. So far, so cool. But is that feasible?

In reality, Rankin informs us, antimatter can only exist in a supercollider as large as our lecture hall.

The reason has to do with the relationship between energy and mass at the speed of light, ie: e=mc2. The creation of antimatter requires a ginormous amount of energy created at light-fast speeds.

You can't make that stuff in a cigarette pack. Play it true, and you've created a scene that's more like the Stay Puft marshmallow man scene from Ghostbusters, in which the Illuminati manage to steal -- and hide -- a lecture hall-sized Supercollider with an eensy-teensy bit of antimatter inside it.

How eensy? Very. But in this case, Hollywood's eensy is incredibly huge by sci-standards.

If you think a good man is hard to find, try assembling a 1/4 gram of antimatter.

FermiLab in Chicago, one of the world's premier antimatter creators, manages to make two nanograms of the non-stuff a year, Rankin says. Assuming Angels' bad guys could find a way to make their antimatter stick around, and carry it around, they'd need 109 million years -- more than an entire American Idol season feels -- to create it. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/nanogram

At this point, I should point out that Rankin's scientific look at Angels and Demons is being conducted with the enthusiasm of someone who obviously loves her field, and wants to help others develop an informed love of it, too.

Her experiment works for me. While the science of Angels and Demons doesn't hold up on close examination, this doesn't make the movie any less appealing to me in theory.

"Not having a complete theory is exciting in science," Rankin says, in response to a question about another element of the film -- "The God Particle's" role in the long sought-after Theory of Everything.

Something about a film with so many sci-flaws appeals to me, too. And when I'm done at the movies, I think I'd like to become a physicist. How about you?