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  • Sci-Fi, Science Collide at CERN
Feb 2009
GENEVA, Feb. 13, 2009 -- When officials at CERN were contacted by Sony Pictures in early 2007 about filming part of the upcoming Tom Hanks movie "Angels & Demons" there, the lab, home to the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator, saw it as an opportunity to promote the exciting but often misunderstood world of antimatter research.
At the Feb. 12 press event at CERN for the movie "Angels & Demons," are (l-r) the stars of the film, Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer, with the director, Ron Howard. CERN hosted a visit from the actors and director as they unveiled some select footage from their new film adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel "Angels & Demons," part of which was shot at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator. The film is set for worldwide release May 15. (Photo: ©2009 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved)
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, located on the border of Switzerland and France, is the world's leading laboratory for particle physics. The main thrust of its research is understanding why nature prefers matter to antimatter.

When the universe was created about 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang, logic suggests that matter and antimatter would have been created in equal quantities, then collided and annihilated each other, leaving behind only energy. But that didn't happen -- there was more matter than antimatter. One of the great mysteries of the universe today is how enough matter has survived to provide the building blocks for stars, planets, and even human life. CERN hopes to use the LHC to create conditions that resemble those at the time of the Big Bang and gain an understanding of how the universe was created.

"The fact that 'Angels & Demons' is a best-selling novel and now a Hollywood movie gives us the opportunity to show how exciting the reality of antimatter research is," said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci in a statement. "Both fiction and science want to take us from the ordinary to the extraordinary; the difference is that science has to operate entirely within reality."

“It’s been a privilege working with CERN,” said "Angels and Demons" director Ron Howard. “The scientists here have been incredibly helpful in explaining the science to us, and giving us access to some incredible places. I think what they’re doing here is fantastic.”
A still from the movie "Angels & Demons," which stars Ayelet Zurer and Tom Hanks. (Photo: ©2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.)
Sony's "Angels & Demons," an adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown's best-selling novel, is scheduled to open May 15. In the film, Tom Hanks reprises his role as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who once again finds that forces with ancient roots are willing to stop at nothing, even murder, to advance their goals. This time the secret brotherhood known as the Illuminati wants to annihilate the Vatican via a bomb created with antimatter stolen from CERN.

Because "Angels & Demons" is a work of fantasy, the science portrayed in both the book and movie can be fantastical. After the book's publication, CERN addressed some of the scientific liberties on its Web site. One major point is the book's suggestion that antimatter can be produced in large enough quantities to be used as bombs and pursued as a limitless source of power.

Antimatter, which annihilates completely when it touches normal matter, is contained only with great difficulty, and at very tiny quantities, CERN said. Since it doesn't occur in nature and has to be created, and it takes more energy to create than it gives back during annihilation, it is useless as a potential energy source.

"If we could assemble all the antimatter we've ever made at CERN and annihilate it with matter, we would have enough energy to light a single electric light bulb for a few minutes," the organization said.

But antimatter does have a practical use -- antielectrons, or positrons, are already used in medical PET (Positron-Emission Tomography) scanners. In the future, antimatter might also be used to treat cancer. Preliminary experiments carried out at CERN have shown that antimatter particle beams could be very effective at destroying cancer cells.

The way the lab makes antimatter also differs greatly from the way it is portrayed in fiction.

"The production and storage of antimatter at CERN is not at all as described in the book: You cannot stand next to the Large Hadron Collider and see it come out, especially since the LHC accelerator is not yet in operation. To make antiprotons we collide protons with a block of tungsten (Wolfram). Out of this come a large number of particles, some of which are antiprotons. Only the antiprotons are useful, and only those that fly out in the right direction. So that's where your energy loss goes: it is like trying to water a pot of flowers but you only have a sprinkler that sprays over the whole garden."

The movie crew filmed at CERN last year, before the 17-mile Large Hadron Collider (LHC) tunnel was sealed to begin experiments on the smallest building blocks of matter. Because particle science is not well understood by the public, CERN had to allay public concerns it might spawn black holes that would swallow the Earth, and death threats were even made against researchers participating in the project (See: Threats Won't Stop Collider).CMSDetector.jpg
The CMS Detector, one of the Large Hadron Collider's six experiments. The CMS experiment uses a general-purpose detector to investigate a wide range of physics, including the search for the Higgs boson, extra dimensions, and particles that could make up dark matter. The CMS detector is built around a huge solenoid magnet. (Photo: CERN)
The atom smasher was turned on in September, but cooling system problems forced a shutdown (See: Quench Latest LHC Setback  and LHC Repairs to Take Months). CERN had thought the experiment would restart this spring, but said this week it won't restart until September to allow time for repairs.

“The schedule we have now is without a doubt the best for the LHC and for the physicists waiting for data,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer in a statement. “It is cautious, ensuring that all the necessary work is done on the LHC before we start up, yet it allows physics research to begin this year.”

The plan now is to have first beams in the LHC at the end of September, with collisions following in late October. After a short technical stoppage over the Christmas break, the LHC would then run through the fall of 2010 to ensure that the experiments have adequate data to carry out their first new physics analyses and announce results in 2010. Under the new schedule, collisions of lead ions might be possible in 2010 as well, CERN officials said.

For more information on CERN and the LHC, visit:

For more information on "Angels and Demons" and to view the movie's trailer, visit:

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