Angels & Demons & bombs, oh my!

May 15, 2009

Today a film based on Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons is being released.  This is the same man who brought us The Da Vinci Code, “the most lucrative novel”, as someone has said, “ever written by a borderline illiterate”.  Anyway, the new film apparently relies for its master narrative on that dusty old legend: the warfare of science and religion.  Brown, if you hadn’t guessed, is on the side of science. In Angels & Demons, we find that this ancient, implacable conflict boils up in a particularly flamboyant form: an antimatter bomb has been planted inside the Vatican, apparently as payback for the way the Church excommunicated Pascal, executed Copernicus, and condemned Galileo to lodge in a deep, dark dungeon.

From time to time Brown has been accused of a certain lackadaisical attitude toward the accuracy of his claims about religion, art, and history, but surely, considering the uniquely glorious good that is scientific truth, we should expect him to be scrupulous about presenting scientific ideas clearly and accurately.  Ladies and gentlemen, consider the following:

Antimatter is the ultimate energy source. It releases energy with 100% efficiency (nuclear fission is 1.5% efficient.) Antimatter is 100,000 times more powerful than rocket fuel. A single gram contains the energy of a 20 kiloton atomic bomb—the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In addition to being highly explosive, antimatter is extremely unstable and ignites when it comes in contact with anything … even air. It can only be stored by suspending it in an electromagnetic field inside a vacuum canister. If the field fails and the antimatter falls, the result is a “perfect” matter/antimatter conversion, which physicists aptly call “annihilation.” CERN is now regularly producing small quantities of antimatter in their research for future energy sources. Antimatter holds tremendous promise; it creates no pollution or radiation, and a single droplet could power New York City for a full day. With fossils fuels dwindling, the promise of harnessing antimatter could be an enormous leap for the future of this planet. Of course, mastering antimatter technology brings with it a chilling dilemma. Will this powerful new technology save the world, or will it be used to create the most deadly weapon ever made?

Any questions?

Statements like this raise the intriguing possibility that Brown’s fondness for systematic misrepresentation of Christianity is rooted not in an inauspicious marriage of paranoid fantasy and willful mendacity, as we had suspected, but rather in sheer invincible incompetence.  It is an encouraging thought.

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8 Responses to “Angels & Demons & bombs, oh my!”

  1. KathyB Says:

    My favourite part of this is how CERN is involved. I always suspected they were up to no good over there, but now I know!

  2. Reg Says:

    Am I doing the math right? Antimatter is 100,000 times more powerful than rocket fuel and single drop will power NYC for a full day. Google says that 1 drop is 0.05 ml so 5 litres of rocket fuel should do the trick! Why were the fossil fuels dwindling, again? Or something else is wrong…

  3. cburrell Says:

    You’ve found a problem that I hadn’t noticed, Reg. His little physics lesson is truly a prodigy of errors, piled up every which way.

  4. Adam Hincks Says:

    Too bad we don’t have vast reservoirs of anti-matter deep underground suspended by the Earth’s magnetic field. Or maybe that’s for another novel. Or perhaps it could be about how the Vatican promulgated the Second Law of Thermodynamics during the Middle Ages so that antimatter power generation would never fly.

  5. KathyB Says:

    Whoa! I just followed your link to CERN and learned that they actually DO produce antimatter on a regular basis.
    If you need to find me, I will be hiding in the basement for the next several decades while stockpiling canned goods.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Oh yes, antimatter is real — as real as matter. There’s just not as much of it. Brown does ok for two or three lines, and then goes progressively more astray.

    Adam, you’re too clever for your own good.

  7. I never went beyond high school physics, but: ignites?!?

  8. cburrell Says:

    You have good instincts, Maclin. Ignition is a chemical reaction, which matter-antimatter annihilation most assuredly is not.

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