Actors, antimatter collide at CERN
The European particle physics laboratory CERN is no stranger to the media spotlight, and its scientists are used to famous visitors, having given tours to Nobel Prize winners, royalty and the occasional pop star. But last week saw a first even for CERN, as star actors Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer and star director Ron Howard, along with more than 180 members of the media and dozens of Sony Pictures staff members, descended on the laboratory for a media event to promote the summer blockbuster movie Angels & Demons.
During a two-day whirlwind of interviews, press conferences, and photo shoots, journalists and scientists learned that Hanks, Howard, and Zurer are all fans of science, and took their scientific preparation for the film seriously. Hanks and Zurer both started reading (albeit never finished) The God Particle, and Howard visited CERN in 2007 to do background research for the movie.
In the Angels & Demons movie, as in the Dan Brown novel on which the film is based, antimatter created at CERN is stolen and used for nefarious purposes. Journalists at last week’s event asked the actors--and CERN scientists--about the reality of antimatter research.
“I found out today that if I stuck my hand into the particle accelerator, it would disappear, and antimatter would be created,” said Tom Hanks during an evening question-and-answer period. “I’m willing to sacrifice my hand for science by sticking it in the LHC.”
While the plot revolves around missing antimatter, a major theme of the novel and the film is the perceived tension between science and religion. CERN staff and scientists point to the vast number of people from many countries and religions working together on the LHC as evidence that the tension alluded to in the book and movie don't reflect reality. Hanks offered a more personal theory on how science and religion can gracefully coexist.
“Mystery is what I think is the Grand Unifying Theory of all mankind,” he explained. When I go to church I ponder the mystery. I think CERN is a beautiful place--they’re wresting with a mystery. Both answer both in ways that are different.”
This may not be the last CERN sees of Hollywood this year. Steve Myers, the lab's director of accelerators and technology, seized on Hanks’ tongue-in-cheek offer to lend a hand at the LHC and asked him to return to restart the accelerator this fall. The actor said yes, but scientists will have to wait to see whether the as-yet-unknown restart date collides with availability in the star's schedule.