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Harrison Prosper: "The physics in the 'Angels and Demons' movie"

By Todd Adams May 28, 2009

On May 28, 2009, the FSU High Energy Physics (HEP) group and the Department of Physics hosted a public lecture entitled "Angels and Demons: The Science Revealed". Dr. Harrison Prosper, Kirby W. Kemper Professor of Physics and recently named FSU Distinguished Research Professor, gave the presentation in the new classroom building to an audience of about 150 people.

The presentation built on the Sony Pictures film "Angels and Demons" starring Tom Hanks and discussed science topics inspired by the storyline. The story begins with the theft of antimatter from the European science laboratory, CERN. The antimatter is used to make a bomb that threatens the Vatican with destruction. Not surprisingly, this triggers a desperate race to find the bomb before it detonates. Prof. Prosper presented facts about antimatter, how it is produced, how much can be produced, and how it is used in research. Luckily for everyone, he noted that it would take 900 million years to produce as much antimatter as depicted in the film!

Parts of the movie were filmed at CERN. Prof. Prosper discussed CERN and some of the differences between the real laboratory and its movie version. A short clip of Tom Hanks' appearance on Comedy Central's The Daily Show was used to contrast his experience at CERN with actual research done there. Several FSU researchers, including faculty, scientists and students, are active participants in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at CERN, one of several experiments now recording data at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). When the LHC began operations in late 2009, it replaced the Fermilab Tevatron as the world's most powerful particle accelerator. Members of the FSU HEP group have worked on the D0 experiment at the Tevatron since its inception in the early 1980s. Theoretical physicists at FSU provide precise calculations that are critical to interpretations of data analyzed by FSU experimental physicists working on D0 and CMS.

Also discussed were some of the important questions that particle physicists seek to answer. Particles accelerators are the only laboratory environment that can create conditions like those that existed a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Consequently, the experiments at Fermilab and CERN are critical for improving our understanding of the evolution of the universe. These experiments may help elucidate some of the deepest puzzles in physics today such as the nature of dark matter and dark energy. We may even learn something new about the nature of space itself.

The public lecture concluded with a lively discussion period, moderated by Prof. Todd Adams who organized the event, in which members of the audience posed a wide-ranging set of questions inspired by the movie or the lecture. The questions ranged from the usefulness of antimatter in energy research to theoretical ideas of string theory. The discussion lasted for more than 30 minutes.

The lecture was part of a series presented across the United States around the opening of the film. Additional presentations were made in Canada, France, Germany, Puerto Rico, and Switzerland. Local support for the lecture was provided by the FSU Department of Physics, the FSU Office of the Vice President for Research, the FSU Office of Communications, and the Global Education Outreach for Science Engineering and Technology (GEOSET) program.

The presentation was filmed by the GEOSET project and is available on the web at http://mediasite.apps.fsu.edu/Mediasite/Viewer/?peid=80b9ee5486ac422486292e9cb339b4cc.