Defusing the Antimatter Bomb

Defusing the Antimatter Bomb

A maniacal scheme by a ruthless villain. A desperate search for a time-bomb. A harrowing escape from destruction.

We’ve seen these plot devices repeated throughout the action/adventure genre. Obviously, the climaxes of popcorn flicks are rife with scientific inaccuracies. It drives my wife crazy when I point them out, but the unusual bomb set to blow Vatican City sky-high in the recent adaptation of Dan Brown’s thriller Angels & Demons deserves some discussion.

In this prequel to The Da Vinci Code, villains steal and attempt to use antimatter to destroy the Vatican. According to Einstein’s famous formula E = mc2 (where c is the speed of light), when antimatter encounters normal matter, both annihilate and convert all the mass into energy. The enormous energy released by this combination, particularly when involving x-rays and gamma-rays, highlights the catastrophic capabilities of antimatter. The bomb in the story is made from only a quarter-of-a-gram of antimatter (contained by magnetic fields). That may not seem like much, yet even that amount would pack a jolt equal to fifteen thousand tons TNT—similar to the firepower of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The use of a magnetic container in Angels & Demons demonstrates that the author put forth some effort to make the plot scientifically plausible. Nevertheless, TV’s MythBusters would have a field day with the story. For example, the hero uses a helicopter to harmlessly detonate the bomb in the sky over the Vatican. In reality, as demonstrated by the atomic bombs used in WWII, detonation a couple thousand feet in the air would maximize damage.

Unsurprisingly, the story’s plot relies on the antiquated premise that science and Christianity inherently conflict. But the history of antimatter in the universe shows signs of the fine-tuning expected of the biblical Creator. Even though antimatter composed nearly half the mass of the early universe, no significant concentrations of antimatter persist today. However, if the early universe had contained identical amounts of antimatter and matter, none of life’s building blocks would have remained.

Almost every known process for making antimatter produces equal amounts of antimatter and matter. Yet for reasons still not understood by scientists, some process (or processes) in the early universe created only a billion particles of antimatter for every billion and one particles of matter. Subsequently, all the antimatter collided with matter annihilating the antimatter, leaving a universe with an abundance of matter to form life.