The Sciences

A Teaching Moment: Angels & Demons

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMar 4, 2009 5:25 AM


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May 15 will be the premiere of Angels & Demons, the Ron Howard movie starring Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer, based on the Dan Brown novel. The narrative moves between particle physics at CERN and religious politics at the Vatican -- feel free to provide your own characterization of that particular binary opposition.

We have no idea how good the movie is going to be, but it's sure to garner attention, and it does feature physics prominently. So the Division of Particles and Fields of the American Physical Society figures that we might as well get some mileage out of it. They recently sent around the email below, encouraging physics departments to host "Angels & Demons lecture nights" to capitalize on the interest generated by the movie. Seems like a good idea to me -- rather than spending energy finding flaws in the physics as portrayed in the movie (which are sure to be there), let's grab the opportunity to spread the word about some exciting science that's being done in the real world. If nothing else, the most common question about the LHC will change from "Will it make a black hole that will destroy the world?" to "Will it make an anti-matter bomb that could destroy the Vatican?"

This May, Sony Pictures will release Angels and Demons, a movie based on Dan Brown's best-selling novel that focuses on an apparent plot to destroy the Vatican using a small amount of antimatter. In the book and the movie, that antimatter gets stolen from CERN. Starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, parts of the movie were actually filmed at CERN. It's not every day that a major motion picture places particle physics in the spotlight. The US particle physics community would like to take advantage of this opportunity to tell the world about the science behind the movie, the Large Hadron Collider and the excitement of particle physics. Along these lines, the Fermilab, SLAC and US LHC users organizations will join forces to organize Angels and Demons public lecture nights at universities or other venues across the country when the movie premieres in mid-May. While each institution will be responsible for the local logistics of planning the public lecture, the Fermilab Office of Communications and the CERN Press Office can help. A Web page on the US LHC Web site ( will provide you with materials that will include: - a template PowerPoint talk, for your use if helpful - a template poster to advertise the lecture at your institution - tips on answering tough questions - information on how to broadcast the lecture on the Web If you would like to host a lecture, please contact Elizabeth Clements ( or Katie Yurkewicz ( They will give you more information and help you with publicity for your event. While the movie contains a great deal that is not about science, physics is central to its plot. This makes it possible for US physicists to lecture on the science behind the movie, the Large Hadron Collider and particle physics in general. The physics at the heart of Angels and Demons--the potential destruction of the Vatican by a small chunk of antimatter--calls attention to what happens when matter and antimatter meet. This in turn calls attention to the fact that the absence of practically any antimatter in the universe is crucial to our existence. To understand that absence is one of the big challenges of particle physics. Public lectures could discuss the challenge of the missing antimatter, possible solutions and how experiments in both the intensity and energy frontiers will explore these mysteries. In order to allow enough time to plan and advertise the lecture at your institution, the time to get started is now. We hope that you will make the most of this wonderful opportunity to get the public excited about particle physics and the many anticipated discoveries that lie ahead. Sincerely, Boris Kayser, Chair Division of Particles and Fields American Physical Society

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