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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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Angels, Demons, and Energy Non-Conservation

Angels and Demons opened today here in Geneva, and I just got back from seeing it with a big group of my friends from CERN.  (There was also a special early showing last week, which a few people I know went to, but I was neither lucky enough to get a ticket in the drawing nor important enough to get an automatic invitation.)   We had a good time, especially with the opening.  It had a lot of images from CERN — along with a lot that weren’t — and a lot of real particle physics terminology.  Everything was rather scrambled.  For example, a “luminosity of ten to the thirty-four” is a real measure of the intensity of the LHC’s collisions, but it’s a figure that will take years and significant upgrades (rather than minutes) to attain.  Overall, the introduction gave us plenty of occasions for laughter, which the other movie-goers may have thought odd — unless they were from CERN too.   Probably people who are knowledgeable about the Catholic church or renaissance art will find other parts of the movie equally mixed-up and entertaining.

I’m not spoiling much if I say that CERN’s critical role in the movie is producing a quarter of a gram of antimatter which is then used to threaten a large part of Rome with destruction.  Antimatter really exists, that amount of it really could do what they said, and antimatter really is made and studied at particle physics laboratories like CERN.  But it would take millions of years to produce that much at the present rate, and we don’t have the technology to store it even for even a fraction of a second in order to study it.  I have a friend at Berkeley who works on an experiment at CERN to do exactly that, a few atoms at a time, but storing antimatter in visible quantities as an energy source is probably further from our current level of technology than mining hydrogen from the atmosphere of Jupiter and sending it back to earth.

The most frustrating part for physicists about the portrayal of antimatter is the way it seems to be magically produced for “free” energy.  The universe never works that way: energy is conserved, which means that even with amazing technology you’d have to put in as much or more energy to make the antimatter as you’d get out later.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  The religious overtones put on the antimatter production, and on the woefully mis-nicknamed “God particle,” are also rather frustrating and inaccurate.  Yes, we think that the Higgs boson or something like it is involved in producing some of the mass in the universe — but no, that doesn’t tell us anything about the book of Genesis or the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

So let me be clear: we neither want nor expect to find the answers to any religious mysteries in our studies at  the LHC.  We also won’t make “red matter” like you saw in Star Trek — that’s entirely fictional.  CERN doesn’t have a space plane or a secret vault with the seventh horocrux.  The lab cafeteria does not serve soylent green, although it does have an excellent salad bar.

For more serious and detailed answers about the fact and fiction of Angels and Demons, CERN has a new website: angelsanddemons.cern.ch

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