CERN Accelerating science

Antimatter Event with Rolf Landua: Everything you wanted to ask.

by Julia Gonski and Cristina Martin Perez

Shortly after Dirac’s prediction, the first antiparticle was discovered in 1932. Since then, antimatter has been largely studied and produced in many experiments in order to help unrevealing the mysteries of the Universe. Antimatter has also reached the general public through science fiction, especially through Dan Brown's bestseller Angels & Demons in 2000 and the following movie by Ron Howard in 2009. LeClub Association held an event on 21st of July at CERN aimed to clarify the truth and false of antimatter and its production. 

As one of the premier physics research facilities in the world, CERN has always been the subject of interest and questioning from the general public. Dan Brown’s 2000 thriller novel Angels and Demons, and the subsequent Ron Howard film, are key examples of such media infatuation. Following the release of the film in 2009, the antimatter experiments in particular stepped onto the public stage, bringing with them Antimatter Decelerator (AD) co-founder and CERN researcher Dr. Rolf Landua.  But amidst all the media coverage, many questions arise: is antimatter dangerous? Or rather, can it be a source of renewable energy? And what is the true science behind all the fiction?

On July 21st, CERN held a public screening of Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons in the Main Auditorium, drawing a crowd that included CERN employees and tourists alike. In the film, scientists at CERN use the Large Hadron Collider to create one gram of a highly volatile substance called antimatter, which annihilates with matter to produce a catastrophic explosion. Landua played a key role in the initial stages of the movie, when he worked closely with Howard as a scientific advisor. Following the screening, he gave a brief talk about the film, explaining to an attentive audience what antimatter is, how it is made, and several mysteries that are to be resolved in the experiments at CERN.

Terrence Baine (left) and Rolf Landua (right) with an antimatter trap from the film 'Angels & Demons'. (Image: CERN)

As both an antimatter expert and a science fiction lover, Landua easily clarifies the physics concepts behind the movie. Casting light on the complex questions addressed in the film is quite difficult, yet Landua does it perfectly. He succinctly addressed the key question brought up by the film: is antimatter an energy source that can be used as a weapon? The answer (with a sigh of relief from the audience)— no. Antimatter, in accordance with energy conservation laws, is an energy storage, but is not an energy source. Furthermore, the efficiency of antiproton production is such that it takes about 1,000,000,000 more energy to make antimatter than will finally be released by annihilation. Nevertheless, Landua sees no harm in taking some scientific liberties in the movie’s script, explaining that “science fiction is entertainment, but it can generate interest for science.”

Indeed, Dr. Rolf Landua finds that even scientists can be inspired by cinema and literature in some way. “Science fiction has the advantage that you can think freely,” he explains, it’s a way for scientists to think outside the box.  But despite extoling its virtues, Landua warns that science fiction should never be seen as a teaching tool. The scientist, who is highly committed to science education, focused his main goal for the next years in trying to “introduce a completely different way of teaching physics, starting from the 21st century, and not from the 16th.” While he asserts that he became a physicist “in spite of” his teacher, Landua sees the importance of teaching science in a practical and attractive way, so “when kids come out of school they know at least that the universe is comprehensible”. He declares that the ‘textbook’ way of teaching today has little success, as it has no connection to the real world. “I have only used [kinematics] once in my life, when my cat fell from my balcony,” he jokes.

Landua completed his Ph.D. thesis on exotic atoms at the University of Mainz in Germany before coming to CERN in 1980. Since his arrival at CERN, Landua has worked in several experiments studying antiprotonic atoms, meson spectroscopy and exotic bound states of quarks and gluons. He served for five years as spokesperson for the ATHENA experiment, which produced millions of slow moving antihydrogen atoms for the first time. When asked about the most important issue in antimatter physics today, his answer is simple: to find out if there is any asymmetry between matter and antimatter that could be the reason for the dominance of matter in the universe. Differences could manifest as minor alterations with extreme consequences for modern physics; for example, even the slightest difference in the gravitational constant between matter and antimatter would constitute a huge scientific discovery. It is these issues that Landua hopes will be answered at CERN in the coming decades.

Rolf Landua stands at the entrance to the Antiproton Decelerator (AD) control room (Image: CERN).

In accordance with his efforts to promote the public understanding of physics, Landua currently leads the Education and Public Outreach Group at CERN. Amongst exhibition projects aiming to improve guided tours at CERN, he is also advising the development of a childrens’ TV series about fundamental physics, in collaboration with the European Broadcasting Union. In this sense, innovation at CERN spans the fields of education and science alike, and Dr. Rolf Landua is at the forefront of both.