Brown: Angels and Demons

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Dan Brown, Angels & Demons. [Novel] New York : Pocket Books, 2000. 430 pages.

Dan Brown is certainly a phenomenon. Angels & Demons is certainly many things, among them a fast-paced thriller. One thing it is not is an accurate portrayal of science, despite its claims to the contrary at the beginning of the book.

CERN, the "Centre Européen pour la Recherche Nucleaire", does exist. It is the world's largest particle-physics laboratory, located near Geneva, Switzerland. It is a consortium of 20 member states. Thousands of scientists work there. It does have an enormous underground particle accelerator known as the LHA ("Large Hadron Collider"). As it turns out, they will even soon be using retinal scanners (a "biometric access control system") to control access to the tunnels.

No one at CERN has produced even microscopic samples of anti-mattter. Anti-matter does exist in principle, but not physically in our part of the universe in any stable way. The "magnetic" anti-matter containment devices that Brown describes do not exist and would not work at all as he describes them. To my eye, this was the most glaring of the scientific distortions.

There were other oddities that I remember. For instance, ballistic space planes do not exist except on drawing boards. Even if they did, consider this. CERN is financed by a committee of 20 european governments -- do you really think that the director would have a space plane for his discretionary use?

Early in the book we're introduced to an "ambigram", text written in such a manner that it looks the same when inverted and reversed. It irritated me because I knew that ambigrams, far from being medieval and mystical, had been created in this form in the 1990s.

There were more irritants of this variety, but I don't recall them at the moment. I didn't keep notes because I was too busy turning the pages to find out what happened next!

For a can't-put-it-down plot, Dan Brown delivers. However, if it's scientific or technological accuracy that you're looking for, stick to a trustworthy tech-thriller author like Tom Clancy.

-- Notes by JNS

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