Science in Fiction

Science in Fiction

04 March 2011

Angels & Demons & Science
For Angels & Demons I will be covering both the book and the movieAngels & Demons is about a symbologist who is enlisted to help stop a secret society called the Illuminati from setting off an antimatter "bomb" in Vatican City.

For starters, I recommend watching the following video.  The video covers the shots of them making the antimatter and when the antimatter "bomb" goes off.


These two parts are what make me cringe the most.  Let me cover the making of antimatter first.

Making Antimatter
So, what is antimatter?  Let me explain by example; consider an electron.  An electron has negative charge and has certain mass.  An anti-electron, called a positron, will have the same mass, but will be positive instead.  So, you can think of antimatter as oppositely charged matter.

Now, to make antimatter takes A LOT of energy.  And it produces so little antimatter that, unlike the book states, it is not practical or efficient.  Also, in the history of the world, the amount of artificially produced antimatter is about a billionth of a gram.  To put this in prospective, a sugar packet is about 4 g.  And a billionth of a gram is 0.000000001 grams.  That's a tiny, tiny amount.  Additionally, antimatter is made, pretty much, particle by particle.  So, one collision gets you about one particle.  So, if we're talking about a gram of antimatter made from antiprotons, that's 1,672,621,637,000,000,000,000,000 antiprotons.

In the video, you can see that from they're one collision they are getting a visible amount of antimatter.  In three containers to boot!  The combined one billionth of a gram is not visible to the naked eye.

What's fascinating is that that billionth of a gram of matter has the energy equivalent to half a stick of dynamite!

Annihilating Antimatter
First, I must correct the physicist lady in the movie. She said that antimatter "combusts."  And I must also correct Dan Brown when when he writes, "[Antimatter] ignites when it comes into contact with absolutely anything... even air."  Antimatter does not "combust" or "ignite" it annihilates.  Combustion is when something is consumed by fire; more exactly an exothermic—produces heat—chemical reaction between fuel (e.g. methane) and an oxidant (e.g. oxygen).  And to ignite means to set on fire.  While, annihilation is the term used for what happens when a particle collides with its antiparticle.  Though, a little later in the book, the physicist lady (same one I was talking about from the movie) says, "[Antimatter and matter] instantly cancel each other out if they come into contact with each other."  This is, pretty much, what annihilation is, but this statement is missing two major components of annihilation.
First, when annihilation occurs, energy is released.  For example, when an electron and positron annihilate two photons are produced.  Photons are the particles that make up light and they can be thought of as little packets of energy.  When physicists use the word "light" they mean more than what your eyes perceive.  Gamma rays, x rays, ultraviolet, infrared, microwave, and radio waves are all made of photons; physicists will take all these into account when they say light.

Second, annihilation only occurs between a antimatter particle and it's respective matter particle.  For example, an electron can only annihilate with a positron, not with an antiproton.  So, unlike what Dan Brown states, that antimatter, he uses antiprotons in the book, will annihilate (my term, not his) when it "comes into contact with absolutely anything...," is incorrect.  But his little addition at the end, "... even air," is correct because protons are in the air.

Getting Hit by Gamma Rays
The photons released from annihilation are usually at the high energy end of the spectrum, gamma rays.  We normally refer to this as gamma radiation.  Unlike what Stan Lee will lead you to believe, gamma radiation will not turn you into Hulk.  Instead it can cause radiation poisoning, increase chances of cancer/tumors, and genetic mutations; it's like getting a really, really, really bad sunburn inside and out of your body.
The reason that this happens to you is because gamma radiation penetrates deeply.  So, it will get right into you and your organs and all that important stuff.  It is the most penetrating of the 3 common types of radiation (i.e. alpha, beta & gamma).  Sorry, but I'm not going to go into the other radiation types here; it would take to long to explain them.

That said, in the movie and book, a gram of antimatter annihilates in the sky above Vatican City.  A bunch of light is released, but all is well with the people below.  This would not be so in real life.  While some of the energy released will be in the visible—what human eyes can see—range, most of the energy would be in the high energy range that is harmful to people.  Therefore, most likely, everyone in the area would be dead.  The result of the antimatter annihilating would be more devastating than the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima.

These were my biggest problems with the book and movie, but there are others.

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