Angels & Demons: fact of the matter

Angels & Demons: fact of the matter

When Tom Hanks’ character, Robert Langdon, hunts down the secret Illuminati brotherhood in the film of Dan Brown’s bestseller Angels & Demons, the cameras follow him tracking down stolen antimatter in a secret laboratory at Cern, the home of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and the infamous Large Hadron Collider.

But for Swansea University professor Mike Charlton, the techy setting of Angels & Demons is just his own office. Every few weeks, Charlton, a senior research fellow in physics, heads to Cern to carry out experiments and develop his research into the complex world of particle theory.

It’s a massive collaboration, Charlton says, of around 40 scientists from institutions ranging from the University of California, Berkeley to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil – but antimatter? I’m already a little lost. Luckily, he provides a potted physics lesson. Antimatter, I’m told, was formed in the Big Bang, when for every particle of matter created, a matching “antiparticle” was born, identical in mass but with the opposite electric charge. For the first few moments of its life the universe was balanced, but just a short time later the antimatter disappeared.

When Brown’s plot arrives at Cern, a stolen gram of antimatter is sneaked out of the Geneva science base with the aim of being used as a devastating weapon. In reality, Charlton explains, that’s impossible. The Alpha research project is currently working on finding a way to collect and then retain antimatter – moving it around just isn’t possible right now.

“We’re currently researching how to make and then store antimatter in order to research and study its properties,” he says. “That means making a very special bottle for it – since antimatter will annihilate on contact with matter – and it’s hardly portable. It is connected to a huge power supply, because we need an enormous magnetic field to make and hold the antimatter, for one thing. Even if you could move that, our storage bottle is huge – about the size of five filing cabinets, and 10 times as heavy – so it would take a day to move it only 10 yards. Plus, the contents are incredibly fragile.”

Charlton also takes issue with the way Brown’s novel suggests that physicists can create antimatter in amounts that could cause a destructive explosion. It’s impossible, says Charlton. “If you wanted to make an explosion, you’d use materials that are ready at hand – which antimatter really isn’t,” he explains. “We’re working on it, but the process means producing each atom individually, using an expensive machine which, every minute or so, can only make a few million anti-nuclei – the heavy parts we need to create the atoms of antimatter.”

“To make an explosion, you’d need a massive amount more than that. And it would require so much power that it's well beyond the realms of reality.”

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