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Hollywood Pays a Visit to CERN

13 February 2009 1:27 pm
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Last night I found myself attending an unusual press briefing at one of the largest physics research institutes in the world. Addressing the assembled media were a top antimatter specialist, the woman who plays one in an upcoming movie, the director of that movie, and the Hollywood celebrity whose name will appear above the movie’s title: Tom Hanks. Needless to say, science wasn’t the star of this show but more science was discussed than I expected, and some religion to boot.

The setting was one of the many press junkets that Sony has organized for the new movie from Ron Howard based on Angels & Demons, the book Dan Brown wrote before he penned the book that made him famous (that’s The Da Vinci Code for the five of you who haven’t read it). Angels & Demons’s opening scenes are set at CERN, the international collaboration near Geneva, Switzerland, that is now fixing its Large Hadron Collider. (Its restart date was just announced as September.) It seems that Sony often flies in entertainment journalists from all over the world to attend these panels that provide access to stars and directors. After helping out on the production of the movie and allowing Howard to film there—and with the LHC down —CERN agreed to host one, nicely insisting that a few science writers got an invite.

Angels and Demons at CERN/SONY                                                         Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ron Howard

The theme throughout Angels & Demons is that science and religion are like matter and antimatter: an explosive combination. CERN's residents don’t accept that premise, however. All of the scientists I spoke to emphasized that at CERN, everyone is accepting of different religions. Some of the physicists are publicly religious and there's even a Buddhist monk working there as a researcher at the moment. Hanks, who said he goes to church, professed admiration for CERN: “I think CERN is such a beautiful place, they're turning over the mysteries.”

Hanks also drew on a previous encounter with science to explain how he felt on this visit to CERN. “It’s like when I went to the Chabot Observatory, in Oakland, California. I saw, like Gallileo saw, the four moons of Jupiter, I saw the moons with my own eyes, only I saw seven moons of Jupiter. … This place is a wonderful school, church, museum. … I love seeing science fiction become science fact. … Magic is not happening here, quite the opposite: Magic is being explained here.”

In any case, the movie may not emphasize the science-religion battle portrayed by Brown in the book—or it may. I actually am not allowed to review or describe in detail the few minutes of raw footage from Angels & Demons that I was shown at CERN; Sony required me to sign a confidentiality letter.

Howard, who also directed the film version of The Da Vinci Code, did make it clear that he did not follow the book letter for letter. Still, I think I can safely reveal that the movie still has a hot Italian female physicist from CERN and the Vatican is still involved in the plot line. I can also give you the basic set-up:  A CERN researcher, the gorgeous woman, has found a way to store antimatter in a canister and it gets stolen by the Illuminatti, who started out as religious scientists, colleagues of Galileo, but who have become some kind of Satanic cult. A grisly murder (or four or five) is involved in the Illuminati’s efforts to get the stuff and use it to destroy the Vatican and the Catholic church in a great blazing explosion of light reminiscent of the Big Bang. Needless to say, in the midst of this conspiracy theory, some of the science is wrong. And Tom Hanks appears in a Speedo, which some may feel is even more wrong.

But back to the science, if you can clear your head of that image. I can attest that in the movie, a couple of grams of antimatter looks like a blob of mercury escaped from a thermometer, much as Brown described it the book.  Physicists at CERN note, however, that they have yet to find a way to get anti-particles, anti-protons, and such to sit still long enough to measure them and if they could, the antimatter wouldn't look like mercury.

At the press conference after the viewing, I asked Hanks if he had to learn any physics for this movie. “As an actor, I can make you think I know everything there is to know,” he responded. Still, Hanks noted that he and his co-star, Ayelet Zurer, were swapping science books during production. He leaned over at one point to ask her if she finished reading The God Particle—neither had.

CERN scientists told me that Zurer and Hanks had been engaging as they toured the facilities earlier on Thursday, asking informed questions about ATLAS and other projects/experiments. Hanks apparently wanted more. As I and another reporter were leaving our own tour of ATLAS this morning, Hanks was about to be ushered in by half a dozen CERN employees, Sony people, and his bodyguards.  The party was entering the underground tunnel using a back route to avoid the press. 

No one at CERN seemed particularly starstruck. Ron Howard had visited a few times before, and the scientists who had advised him on language and a few other points were pretty nonchalant about the whole thing.  Rolf Landua, an antimatter physicist at CERN (who now runs the education program for high school teachers), sat next to Tom Hanks during the press conference and took gentle ribbing in stride (Here's an interview Landua did about the book). At one point, Hanks jokingly asked Landua to “explain particle physics” and the scientist shot back, “Give me 2 days.”

Audiences surely won’t need 2 days of education to enjoy the movie, which should be released in mid-May.

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