Scientists debunk "Angels and Demons" antimatter

CHICAGO Tue May 19, 2009 7:17pm EDT

1 of 2. Director Ron Howard (L) is shown on the Cern set of his film 'Angels & Demons' in this undated publicity photo released to Reuters May 19, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Zade Rosenthal/Columbia Pictures/Handout

CHICAGO (Reuters) - "Angels and Demons," the recently released film version of the Dan Brown thriller, focuses on a plot to destroy the Vatican using a small amount antimatter pilfered from the European particle physics laboratory CERN, the world's largest particle accelerator.

Some of the world's top particle physicists attempted to sort through facts and fiction about antimatter on Tuesday, and comment on their real quest behind CERN -- to unlock secrets about the origins of the universe.

"Antimatter atoms exist, but it is very difficult to make them," Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director-general of CERN, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research, said on Tuesday in a telephone briefing.

Antimatter particles are subatomic particles that are mirror images of matter, added Boris Kayser of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, and chairman of the American Physical Society's Division on Particle Physics.

When the two come together, they annihilate one another, and their mass is released in the form of energy.

In Dan Brown's book, on which the Sony Pictures film was based, a quarter gram of antimatter was thought to be the equivalent of 5,000 tonnes of dynamite, enough to wipe out everything within a half mile or so.

"That number was correct," Kayser said.

But it is not likely to be used in any bomb, they said. "It would take us billions of years to produce the amount which is used in the film," Heuer said.

And while tempting, the notion of using antimatter as an alternative energy source is also impractical, Kayser said. It would take too much energy to make and store.

Antimatter has not always been so rare.

During the big bang, there were equal parts of matter and antimatter in the universe, Kayser said, and understanding what happened to antimatter is a main focus of research at Fermilab.

Leon Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi Lab and winner of the 1988 Nobel prize in physics, said the new Large Hadron Collider or LHC is meant to be used as a tool.

"It's sort of a repetition of what happened 400 years ago when Galileo devised a telescope and turned it to the sky and made all kinds of discoveries -- sun spots, the moons of Jupiter, and the orbiting of Venus around the sun," Lederman said.

The hope for LHC, a 17-mile (27-km) underground chamber on the border of Switzerland and France, is that it will confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson -- which Lederman called the "God particle" in a book -- which could help explain how matter has mass.

"The God particle ... could provide an explanation for the disappearance of antimatter in the universe," Lederman said.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh)

(julie.steenhuysen@thomsonreuters.com ; +1 312 408 8131))

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