So, how have particle accelerators entered into popular culture recently? Three major films spring to mind: Spiderman 2 (2004), Angels and Demons (2009), and Ironman 2 (2010). In Spiderman, one of the villains is the Sandman (Marvel universe, not to be confused with Neil Gaiman’s DC Sandman) who gains his superpowers by falling into a particle accelerator which consists of a pit of sand. While not very scientifically accurate, this instance of a particle accelerator does not really concern me; I don’t imagine that most people have a fear of falling into particle accelerators, nor do I expect that this is a question that would come up during a Senate review of the current US particle physics budget, although one never really does know.
Next up is Angels and Demons, where CERN, the LHC, and particle physics play a much larger role. Here, antimatter is stolen from CERN and smuggled into the Vatican, where it then annihilates with matter to produce a rather spectacular explosion near the end of the film. This caused some public concern about both antimatter and CERN, but CERN worked very closely with the Columbia Pictures in the lead up to the film release to use this publicity as an opportunity to inform the public about its research. Parts of Angels and Demons were filmed on the CERN campus, and CERN even set up a dedicated webpage to answer frequently asked questions about the film. In the end, while Angels and Demons took some rather large scientific liberties that could have negatively impacted particle physics, the fact that antimatter cannot currently be produced in the quantities seen within the film was also well publicized. Both Dan Brown and Columbia Pictures took a very responsible approach to the film, reaching out to CERN and ensuring that the generated publicity was positive.
“Don’t worry your pretty little heads about this. Just know that he made another element based on his dad’s thing and he did it ‘cause he’s Tony Stark and that’s his superpower; he’s a genius.”That, I think, says it all.
So what started me on this whole inspection of particle accelerators in popular culture? One need look no further than recent episodes of Agents of Shield (another Marvel show) and Arrow (a DC show). In the episode "Repairs of Agents of Shield," a particle accelerator complex suffers an accident, and in the process manages to create a portal to hell, or some hell-like dimension. Frankly, this is awesome. If we
What worries me, is that in all of the examples of particle accelerators in popular culture that I’ve listed, an accident occurs. It would seem as if the good old standbys of giving superheroes powers (radiation from nuclear reactors, spider bites, serums, magical glowy alien thingymajigs) are being partially superseded by particle accelerator accidents. While I can’t say that I particularly mind, as the overall impact on particle physics research seems to be positive and not negative, it would be nice to see particle accelerators not causing accidents in popular culture, but rather leading to amazing breakthroughs. I guess, however, that the creation of the Flash using a particle accelerator truly is a breakthrough, and so I have nothing to complain about!
By Philip Ilten