Angels & Demons - The Real Physics
21 May 2009
The real physics behind the new Dan Brown film, Angels and Demons, was discussed by Dr Robert Flack, of UCL's Institute of Origins, at an evening lecture. In this sequel to The Da Vinci Code, an antimatter bomb, stolen from the European particle physics laboratory CERN, is used to terrorize the Vatican. Is such a bomb possible in the real world? How would such a bomb compare with conventional and nuclear devices? The book suggests that antimatter has potential as a future planet-wide energy resource. These questions amongst others were considered in the lecture.
Antimatter was first proposed by an English physicist Paul Dirac in 1928 and opened a Pandora's box of speculation and conjecture. Now the picture we have of antimatter is totally different. For example our own bodies contain a small amount of Potassium-40, which emits 4000 antiparticles - positrons - every second, but we still live to tell the tale!
Cosmic rays, which contain antimatter, also bombard the Earth and us, thousands of time a second and using simple instruments, such as cloud and spark chambers, it is possible to "see" antimatter. The first observation of a positron was made by American physicist Carl Anderson, using a cloud chamber, an achievement for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1936. Following in his footsteps we had both a cloud and spark detector on display and working at the lecture.
The book also suggests that by making anti-matter we are re-creating the beginning of the Universe and also refers to it as the "God Particle". Both these statements are somewhat confusing and misleading. At the beginning of the Universe it is believed the Big Bang produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter but now matter dominates and antimatter only exists in microscopic quantities. We have learned how to produce anti-matter in larger quantities for use in medicine and fundamental research, but the term "God Particle" was coined for the Higgs Boson particle and did not have any religious connotations. The particle was first postulated by former UCL lecturer Peter Higgs, who referred to it as being the origin of mass. However, the Higgs Boson has never been observed and it is experiments at CERN, such as the Large Hadron Collider, that will search for it.
The lecture was not just about the film and more general questions relating to anti-matter were also considered. For example, can we ever visit the stars? Near-light speed would need to be achieved to get to the closest star in a reasonable time - i.e. the lifetime of an astronaut - and anti-matter driven engines have been proposed as one solution. How close are we to making this a reality? Unfortunately, it would take well over a million years and several times the world's GDP to produce enough antimatter to destroy the Vatican, let alone travel to the stars!
UCL has a world class particle physics group and plays a significant role in making the UK a world leader in the subject. The UCL group are significant members of many major international collaborations and their work was also presented.
The whole lecture has been filmed and is accessible via flash video player below:
Photos from this lecture are published in our dedicated gallery...