Dan Brown’s antimatter bombs are nothing to worry about

Paul Raven @ 20-05-2009

mushroom cloudI miss a lot of things about working in public libraries, but exposure to Dan Brown novels is not one of them. As such, I had no idea that Hollywood had made a movie from another of his books, Angels & Demons, but apparently they have.

Less surprising is the revelation that Brown has played fast and loose with the facts (and the writing, I fully expect); Wired UK takes a look at Brown’s antimatter-bomb-in-the-Vatican plot and points out that we’ve no need to worry about terrorists stealing the stuff from CERN:

And it’s true – scientists there really have  produced antimatter. But only in submicroscopic quantities. “If you add up all the antimatter we have made in more than 30 years of antimatter physics here at CERN, and if you were very generous, you might get 10 billionths of a gram,” CERN’s Rolf Landua, told New Scientist magazine recently. “Even if that exploded on your fingertip it would be no more dangerous than lighting a match.”

It would be possible to make more, of course, but not cheap:

The cost of antimatter is, by [NASA’s] estimates $62.5 million per microgram (£41 million). However, they suggest that a dedicated antimatter production facility, with a pricetag of $3 – $10 billion, would bring the price down to just $25,000 per microgram (a mere £16 million).

But even if that much were just lying around, the storage facilities don’t exactly lend themselves to a cat-burglar raid:

Positrons can be stored in a Penning Trap, a sort of magnetic bottle. (The Air Force bought a new positron trap in December – but only for a device to examine defects in semiconductors.) However, such traps are leaky and you can’t store your positrons indefinitely. There’s also the issue of what happens when the power fails. The trap stops working and all your positrons come into contact with the container walls, which could mean a big boom. Then there’s the question of how many positrons you can store. At the moment storing a microgram of positrons would require a Penning Trap of stupendous size. A 2004 report by the US National Research Council said that much greater energy densities were needed for positrons to be useful as an explosive. The study advised against heavy investment in such a high-risk, immature technology.

So, fear not – the Vatican is safe from antimatter, at least for now. Given the size of the place, I can’t imagine why you’d think you needed anything bigger than a small nuke to take it out… but that doesn’t sound quite as exotic, I guess, and exotic puts the ‘thrill’ into ‘technothriller’. Best leave the plausibility and scientific rigour to those science fiction nerds, eh? [image by V 2]

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2 Responses to “Dan Brown’s antimatter bombs are nothing to worry about”

  1. Frank Glover says:

    Damn, I’m only sorry that Dr. Robert Forward isn’t still around to see this controversy…

  2. jon says:

    I’m disgusted to be the one defending Dan Brown and his multiple crimes against literature, but really — SF is no fun if it doesn’t stretch the truth. Warp drives? Sure! Time travel? Awesome!

    What bugs me most is that someone in possession of such an awesome weapon as an antimatter bomb would waste it on a lame target like the Vatican. The most powerful weapon against that institution is the passage of time itself.