Published online 16 February 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.104

News

Hollywood star could restart damaged particle accelerator

Tinseltown goes to CERN as Tom Hanks promotes latest thriller.

Hanks, Zurer and HowardHanks (left), here with co-star Zurer (centre) and director Howard (right), says he would be happy to switch the LHC back on.CERN

Actor Tom Hanks has agreed to turn on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) once it has been fixed.

The world's most powerful particle accelerator, based at the European particle-physics facility CERN in Geneva, is currently being repaired after breaking down in September last year, just nine days after circulating its first proton beams (see 'Eight-month delay for LHC').

Hanks was at CERN promoting his new film Angels & Demons, in which he plays Harvard University symbologist Robert Langdon, who is investigating a plot to annihilate the Vatican with 0.25 grams of antimatter stolen from CERN. His co-star Ayelet Zurer, who plays a brilliant CERN physicist, and the film's director Ron Howard, were also present at the unusual junket.

"I asked Hanks if he'd like to come back for the switch-on and he said 'yes'," says Steve Myers, CERN's director of accelerators and technology, after giving him a guided tour of the LHC's 7,000-tonne ATLAS experiment on 13 February.

In true Hollywood style, Hanks said he expected to use a large, Frankenstein-esque knife switch to bring the US$4.1-billion accelerator back to life later this year, rather than the more conventional mouse-click. CERN's head of communications, James Gillies, confirmed that the facility "would be delighted" to have Hanks there.

Although many of the 170 or so journalists present at the promotional event were more interested in Hanks's hair-do than in the physics of antimatter, the actor was most animated when talking science. "CERN is a beautiful place," he announced at a press conference held after an eight-and-a-half minute preview of the film. "Magic is not happening here, magic is being explained here."

Smash hit

Angels & Demons includes footage of the LHC and images of sinister canisters that hold the antimatter suspended inside them. CERN physicist Rolf Landua, who advised Howard on the science in the film, said that a new physical mechanism called 'resonant antiproton production' had to be invented to explain how macroscopic quantities of antimatter could be produced.

"If young people who like explosions hear about antimatter bombs at CERN, then great," said Landua, before taking the shine off his outreach a little by adding that thrill-seeking youngsters might be disappointed if they ever actually visited the CERN labs. In reality, CERN has produced less than 10 nanograms (ten billionths of a gram) of antimatter in its 55-year lifetime.

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Still, Hanks was apparently bowled over by the enormous detectors that will analyse debris from collisions between the LHC's particle beams. "It's not unlike when you go to NASA and Cape Canaveral and you see a bunch of bad office buildings and weeds, but then you walk inside and see an orbiter hooked up to the boosters, ready to go," he enthused. And while making the film, Hanks and Zurer even took it in turns to read The God Particle, the popular science book on particle physics by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman.

But as the series of press conferences drew to a close and the junket set a course for Rome, Nature News cut to the chase: was this promotional event just a decoy to allow Howard to scout out a blockbuster about a planet-eating black hole produced at the LHC?

Apparently not. "I wouldn't make that movie," said Howard, who was sporting a CERN baseball cap. "For the moment I think I've done my bit of CERN filming." 

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  • #60724

    The CERN collider emerged as the world's largest after the United States in 1993 canceled the Superconducting Super Collider being built in Texas !

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