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UA professor challenges physics of Hanks’ new movie

Hollywood stretches scientific accuracy in a new action thriller starring Tom Hanks, a University of Arizona researcher said.

“Angels & Demons,” which opens Friday, tells the tale of bad guys who threaten to destroy Vatican City with an explosive device containing a tiny amount of antimatter.

“We’re debunking the premise that you can really create a dangerous device out of antimatter,” said Erich Varnes, associate professor of physics at UA. “I don’t want people to worry that terrorists are going to build an antimatter device and hold it over us.”

Varnes will discuss the science of antimatter and how it applies to the movie at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the UA Harvill Building.

When antimatter collides with matter – for example, a normal electron with a negative charge meets an antimatter electron with a positive charge – they are annihilated and converted into energy, Varnes said.

Since e=mc2, or energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, it would take a lot of antimatter to create an effective bomb, he said.

“If you had enough antimatter you could release huge amounts of energy,” he said. “The key point is there is really no practical way to generate or store enough antimatter to do any serious damage at all.”

If U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois ran flat out for 20 years producing antimatter, and if you could store that much antimatter – which you can’t – you would have the equivalent of 10 pounds of conventional explosives, Varnes said.

The movie is accurate in stating that antimatter can be produced in a lab, and if you get enough, it would annihilate with matter and create a lot of energy, he said.

Scientists see public interest in the movie as an opportunity to inform the public.

“The movie uses particle physics as the basis of its entire plot,” he said. “This is a chance for people to learn what is real in the movie, what is exaggerated, and where we are at the cutting edge of particle physics today.”

The movie is based on a novel by Dan Brown, who also wrote the novel on which a 2006 movie, “The Da Vinci Code” was based.



What: Angels & Demons: The Science of Antimatter and the Large Hadron Collider

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Room 150 of the Harvill Building, 1103 E. Second St.

Speaker: Erich Varnes, University of Arizona associate professor of physics

Cost: Free



Antimatter is made up of elementary antiparticles, like protons and electrons with an opposite electrical charge. When matter and antimatter come into contact, they release energy while being destroyed.

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