The facts and fictions of 'Angels and Demons'

 

WHEN IT comes to strange, it doesn’t get much stranger than antimatter. It forms a perfect mirror image of ordinary matter, but if the two come into contact the whole lot dissolves into pure energy.

This is no ordinary release of energy, explains Dr Tara Shears, a particle physicist at the University of Liverpool. Take just 0.25g of matter, throw it together with the same amount of antimatter and you would get an instantaneous explosion equal to 10,000 tonnes of TNT.

“If you get matter and antimatter meeting, they blow one another up, releasing all of the energy they contain,” Dr Shears explains. “There is nothing left over – it is all released as energy.”

It is for this reason that antimatter is the chosen explosive in the film Angels and Demons, which features a plot to blow up the Vatican.

Antimatter is anything but fictional, however. The film takes us to Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, where antimatter is made in real life.

Scientists believe that studying antimatter might help explain why our universe only has matter instead of an equal mix of both, as would have been formed by the Big Bang. “It is one of the biggest mysteries we have in the universe,” says Dr Shears.

“This can only happen if there is a very subtle difference between matter and antimatter,” she continues. It is the pursuit of this very fine and as yet mysterious difference that encourages scientists to study antimatter. “We don’t know enough about antimatter to understand why this very small difference exists.”

Cern manages to remain standing despite this research because it produces antimatter not in large amounts but atom by atom. A few thousand atoms annihilating one another would go unnoticed except by Cern’s specialised equipment.

“We can make antimatter to study, but in the book the antimatter canister contains 0.25g,” she says. It would take millions of years to deliver that much antimatter at current production levels. “It is not going to happen any time soon.”

The film also shows the scientist played by Ayelet Zurer holding a small canister that contains the 0.25g of antimatter. In reality, the equipment that would be required to produce the electrical and magnetic fields necessary to contain even this tiny amount of antimatter would be about the size of a large truck, says Dr Shears.

Antimatter is not going to give us a useful source of clean, reliable energy, contrary to another idea raised in the film. Vast amounts of energy are required first to produce antimatter and then to contain it safely to prevent its instant annihilation with anything it might contact.

Cern has been producing antimatter particles since 2002. “If you got all the antimatter made by Cern so far it would be enough to power a single light bulb for a few minutes,” says Dr Shears.