Tom Hanks stars in the new action-packed thriller "Angels and Demons," based on Dan Brown's best-selling novel. The story focuses on an apparent plot to destroy the Vatican with antimatter stolen from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Switzerland.
Just how much of the plot is science, and how much is science-fiction? Manfred Paulini, an associate professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon, offered his insight during a recent lecture. (Watch the lecture on YouTube.)
The physics at the heart of "Angels and Demons" calls attention to what happens when matter and antimatter meet. The absence of practically any antimatter in the universe is crucial to our existence, and to understand that absence is one of the big challenges of particle physics. So what is antimatter anyway?
"Antimatter plays an important role in the universe," Paulini explained. "At the beginning, right after the Big Bang, you had a lot of energy that then created matter and antimatter in pairs. There was an equilibrium of the same amount of matter and antimatter, and if you look into our universe now, all of the antimatter has disappeared and the universe is only composed of matter. One of the questions is, where did all of this antimatter go? The search for an answer can be addressed with experiments in particle physics."
Paulini, who is working with a team of physicists on the CMS experiment set to start taking data at the LHC this fall, says creating the amount of antimatter that is talked about in "Angels and Demons" would not be possible.
"We create antimatter in much, much, much, much smaller amounts. That is sort of the issue that prevents antimatter from being used as a destructive weapon," he said.
One of the reasons Paulini gave the lecture was to explain the mystery of the missing antimatter and how future particle physics experiments will explore some of the secrets of the universe.
"Physics is very exciting and we hope the lecture was exciting, too, and will help our students and the general public understand a little bit more what we physicists do with matter and antimatter," Paulini said.