Research & Antiresearch – Physics Errors in Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons”

Posted on 2012/01/06

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‘FACT’ must be one of the least expected titles for the forward to a novel. Nevertheless, this is how Dan Brown chose to start his mystery-thriller: with a series of knowledge claims about the physics of anti-matter.

The motivation for this strange opening becomes more transparent the further one reads ‘Angels and Demons’. Brown clearly intends for the reader to derive excitement from his book by making the premises seem plausible. It could really happen, we are supposed to think. With present-day technology.

Key to the success of this strategy is the protagonist Langdon, and his interaction with information. When it comes to art, he pours out interpretations, histories and stories we are supposed to to believe on his authority alone. In turn, when other characters are informing him on physics, he is as credulous as the author requires us to be.

Langdon’s pseudo-intellectual art analysis, puzzle solving, and physics questions all contribute to a sense that the reader might actually be learning some facts, despite reading a work of fiction.

Brown also chooses topics on on the fringe of human understanding and, as with all ‘god of the gaps’ arguments, seeks a synthesis between religious and scientific ideas with some persuasive rhetoric.

At one point in the novel, Brown has Langdon scan the office of the director of CERN. Among the juxtaposition of religious and scientific imagery, Langdon spots ‘The Tao of Physics’ on the bookshelf,  Fritjof Capra’s ludicrous speculative work that attempts to unite eastern mysticism and quantum mechanics.[1] This all contributes to a vague feeling that Brown has something profound to say about the human condition.

Of course, anyone familiar with Brown’s other novels will know this is the template for his success.

Yet, I wonder how much better these books would have been if Brown (or his character Langdon) had access to Wikipedia.

Dedicate a small amount of time to checking some of the factual claims in his books, and one realizes that Brown is either dishonest or has significantly under-researched his writings.

I’ll restrict myself to the physics, which is my area of specialism, and leave the artistic, historic and geographic claims to other, more capable, critics.

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“I’m sorry?” Langdon interrupted, before he could stop himself. “You say the Big Bang was a Catholic idea?”
Vittoria looked surprised by his question “Of course. Proposed by a Catholic monk, Georges Lemaître in 1927.”
“But, I thought…” he hesitated. “Wasn’t the Big Bang proposed by Harvard astronomer Edwin Hubble?”
Kohler glowered. “Again, American scientific arrogance. Hubble published in 1929, two years after Lemaître.”[2]

  • Georges Lemaître was the first to suggest that Einstein’s General Relativity, when applied to the Universe (with some additional assumptions), predicted that the universe is expanding. More specifically, he showed that galaxies would move away from each other in proportion to the distance between them. He even estimated the constant of proportionality with some rough empirical data.
  • Edwin Hubble, in contrast, found the proportionality rule by guesswork. Or, to put it more kindly, he was not exploring the logical consequences of Einstein’s General Relativity (or any other theory). He was simply collecting data and drew a line – making a guess about the character of the Universe.
  • The dates mentioned in the book are correct: Lemaître published his work in 1927 and Hubble published independently in 1929. Rather unfairly to Lemaître, we now call this Hubble’s Law. However, at the time, neither men were writing about what is now called ‘The Big Bang’.
  • The idea that the universe started with all the matter, space and time in one place was extrapolated from the idea that the universe is expanding. Lemaître proposed the idea of the ”primeval atom” in 1931 and worked with the General Theory of Relativity in order to attempt a description of the formation of the universe.
  • To say this is a ‘Catholic idea’ is misleading. It arises from an imaginative guess, inspired from the consequences of General Relativity. Sure, it coincides with Catholic dogma – that the universe is not eternal (note, this need not imply it was created). Lemaître was indeed a Catholic, but to say The Big Bang is a Catholic idea is like saying relativity is a Jewish idea because Einstein was a Jew. In fact, that was exactly what a lot of right wing Catholics did say in first half of the 20th century, placing Einstein’s work on a list of banned books.
  • Since 1931, the idea of the “primeval atom” was developed by physicists specializing in relativity. Additionally, much work was done on the initial moments of the Universe, utilized developments in quantum mechanics. All this work combined to provide a description of the development of matter and galaxy formation in the Universe, making many specific predications that were confirmed.
  • However, it was not until 1959 that the phrase ‘Big Bang’ was used. Initially meant as a derogatory term, the physicist Fred Hoyle used ‘Big Bang’ to describe the physics he opposed throughout his life.
  • Hubble was never affiliated with Harvard. In fact, the most prominent astronomer at Harvard during the time of Hubble’s discoveries was Harlow Shapley. Shapley denied that the nebulae Hubble (and others) were observing were other galaxies and maintained, for many years after the data had ruled it out, that they were part of the Milky Way.[3]

“I sense you’ve heard of antimatter, Mr. Langdon?” Vittoria was studying him, her dark skin in stark contrast to the white lab.
Langdon looked up. He felt suddenly dumb. “Yes. Well… sort of.”
A faint smile crossed her lips. “You watch Star Trek.”
Langdon flushed. “Well, my students enjoy…” He frowned. “Isn’t antimatter what fuels the U.S.S. Enterprise?”
She nodded. “Good science fiction has its roots in good science.”
“So antimatter is real?”
“A fact of nature. Everything has an opposite. Protons have electrons. Up-quarks have down-quarks. There is a cosmic symmetry at the subatomic level. Antimatter is yin to matter’s yang. It balances the physical equation.”
Langdon thought of Galileo’s belief of duality.
“Scientists have known since 1918,” Vittoria said, “that two kinds of matter were created in the Big Bang. One matter is the kind we see here on earth, making up rocks, trees, people. The other is its inverse—identical to matter in all respects except that the charges of its particles are reversed.”[4]

  • The anti-particle of the proton is the anti-protonThe anti-particle of the electron is the anti-electron (or positron‘). The anti-particle of the up-quark is the anti-up quark.
  • In summary, an anti-particle is a particle with the opposite charge, but the same mass (and other properties). The proton is 1836 times more massive than the electron (approximately), so they are not anti-particles. To make this category error, Brown must have neglected the basic research required for an understanding of this topic.
  • Notice how Brown invokes the “yin-yang” absurdity found in ‘The Tao of Physics’?

She turned to Langdon, as if sensing his discomfort. “Antimatter has some astonishing characteristics, Mr. Langdon, which make it quite dangerous. A ten milligram sample—the volume of a grain of sand—is hypothesized to hold as much energy as about two hundred metric tons of conventional rocket fuel.”
Langdon’s head was spinning again.
“It is the energy source of tomorrow. A thousand times more powerful than nuclear energy. One hundred percent efficient. No byproducts. No radiation. No pollution. A few grams could power a major city for a week.”
Grams? Langdon stepped uneasily back from the podium.[5]

And on Brown’s website, he writes:

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?

  • However from CERN’s website, in reply to this novel, we hear: “There is no possibility to use antimatter as energy ‘source’. Unlike solar energy, coal or oil, antimatter does not occur in nature; we first have to make every single antiparticle, and we have to invest (much) more energy than we get back during annihilation.
    You can imagine antimatter as a storage medium for energy, much like you store electricity in rechargeable batteries. The process of charging the battery is reversible with relatively small loss. Still, it takes more energy to charge the battery than you get back.
    The inefficiency of antimatter production is enormous: you get only a tenth of a billion (10-10) of the invested energy back. If we could assemble all the antimatter we’ve ever made at CERN and annihilate it with matter, we would have enough energy to light a single electric light bulb for a few minutes.”
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[1] Capra, Fritjof (1975), Brown (2000) p 63
[2] Brown (2000) p 90
[3] Marcia Bartusiak (2010) pp. x-xi.
[4] Brown (2000) p 96
[5] Brown (2000) p 101

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References

Brown, Dan (2000) “Angels and Demons” Corgi (Jan 2007 Edition)

Capra, Fritjof (1975) “The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism”  Shambhala Publications

Marcia Bartusiak (2010) “The Day We Found the Universe” Random House Digital, Inc