Now Playing: Angels, Demons and Plenty of Particle Physics

by Anna Kuchment

Michael Tuts, professor of experimental particle physics, has logged nearly four million frequent flyer miles traveling between New York City and Geneva, where he works at the Large Hadron Collider, the gigantic particle accelerator that physicists use to study the smallest known particles.

“You fly so much, and what do they give you as a prize?” he quips. “Another flight.” The commutes are often lonely; his seatmates tend to fall silent when he tells them he’s a physicist. “The usual response is ‘Oh,’” he says. “There’s a perception that physics is remote, or that they’ll have no idea what I’m talking about.”
 
Simulation of particles colliding
Simulation of particles colliding
The forthcoming blockbuster Angels & Demons may help bridge the gap between Tuts and his fellow flyers. The film, opening May 15, revolves around a plot to blow up the Vatican using antimatter stolen from the collider. Based on Dan Brown’s precursor to The Da Vinci Code and starring Tom Hanks, it opens with footage of the ATLAS detector that Tuts, along with 18 Columbia researchers and 2,500 scientists from around the world, helped build. Tuts serves as the U.S. operations program manager for ATLAS, one of two major experiments taking place at the collider that will search for new subatomic particles.
 
As Sony Pictures rolls out its marketing campaign for the film, some institutions are rolling out parallel efforts to explain the scientific facts behind the movie. “It’s not every day that a major motion picture places particle physics in the spotlight,” wrote Boris Kayser, chair of the division of particles and fields at the American Physical Society, in a letter urging members to organize lectures on the film. Columbia has done its part with two events: a May 7 talk in Havemeyer Hall by particle physicist John Parsons, who has spent the last year on sabbatical at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research; and a May 26 Café Science (7:00 p.m. at PicNic Market & Café) led by Tuts.
 
Here’s a rundown of some key facts.
 
What is antimatter anyway, and why are scientists producing it? Antimatter particles possess the same properties as matter particles but carry an opposite charge. When matter and antimatter meet, they obliterate each other, which is why there is very little antimatter left in nature. It’s produced temporarily when the Earth is bombarded with cosmic rays that collide with molecules in the atmosphere. One type of antimatter particle, positrons, is produced in labs for use in PET (positron emission tomography) scans that map brain function.
 
Scientists believe that, just after the Big Bang, matter and antimatter existed in equal proportion. But somehow, an asymmetry occurred and matter began to outnumber antimatter. Our stars and planets formed because a tiny amount of matter survived obliteration. Physicists create antimatter at CERN in order to
recreate conditions that existed in the early universe, so they can solve the puzzle of the matter–antimatter asymmetry.
 
What’s the purpose of the collider? The 17-mile-long, ring-shaped particle accelerator, buried 330 feet below ground, smashes protons together and breaks them apart. “Our basic goal is to understand the fundamental particles and the forces that those particles interact with,” says Tuts. Physicists know that atoms are made of protons and neutrons and that protons and neutrons are made of quarks, but “that’s as far as the answer goes right now.” The Columbia team, led also by physics professors Gustaaf Brooijmans and Emlyn Hughes, is hoping that the ATLAS detector will find new particles. One, referred to in the movie as “the God particle” and by physicists as the Higgs boson, may explain why particles have mass.
 
The collider, which shut down last September for repairs after just a few days of operation, will resume its work this fall. In short order, predicts Parsons, it will help “revolutionize our understanding of the building blocks of nature.”
 
Could what’s described in the film really happen? Don’t panic! There are many reasons why it couldn’t, but perhaps the most understandable for non-physicists is that it would take 125 million years to produce enough antimatter to construct such a bomb.
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