Monday, December 11, 2006

Dan Brown - Angels and Demons

This is a book review I wrote quite a while back on a previous site, but I'm reposting it here.

Dan Brown is a controversial author in the light of his book the DaVinci Code. Some of my pupils had told me this book was much better than DVC, and asked me some interesting questions about physics as a result of reading it. So I thought I probably ought to read it and write a review. Here it is...

Links to reviews of the DaVinci code can be found here and here (need to click past ads on the second one, but it's by a non-Christian, so fewer accusations of bias are likely).

The good points first. It seems to me to be very readable. Dan Brown seems to have an ability shared with the likes of Tom Clancy, John Grisham and J.K. Rowling to write long books that can be read in a single sitting. The suspense is generally handled very well, and brings some not especially well known physics into the public domain. I guess that is to be expected - Dan Brown is a professor of creative writing or something like that. But that is also at the heart of some of the bad points of this book.

Also worth noting is that Dan Brown is virulently anti-church in a very similar way to Philip Pullman, and that lies behind a lot of what goes on...

As in the DaVinci Code, Dan Brown is quite clever in the way he introduces spurious facts. He sets the book in a world very similar to this one, set slightly in the future, with lots of references to real people, places, statues and institutions. There is lots of truth here, but then you get people who are claimed to be experts in a field claiming things which aren't true at all, which means that people are likely to take the false on board with the true. Yes, there are fictional aspects to the story, and factual aspects to the world it is set in. What Brown does is that he adds some wrong fictional aspects to a factual world. And not just so the story can work - they are mostly ones which are directly anti-church.

However, again as with the DaVinci code, Brown makes sufficient factual mistakes in other supposedly parts of the book that if people know what is going on with, for example, high energy physics, they can see that he doesn't really know what he is writing about. I don't know much about Roman geography, art history, etc. I do however know about physics and some of the history of science and religion, and some random other stuff. I know little about the Masons and less about the Illuminati. I've only read the book once, not especially carefully, and these are the mistakes I bothered to note down. Yes, there are spoilers.

Physics mistakes first.

Physics

In the FACT section at the start, it claims that “antimatter is identical to physical matter except that it is composed of particles whose electric charges are opposite to those found in normal matter”. This isn't true. Antimatter in fact has all its properties opposite to normal matter except its mass / energy. So charges are opposite, but so are other properties such as lepton number, strangeness, charm, signs of interactions with gauge bosons (of which charge is just one example), etc.

The idea that matter can be created from energy is not especially new. In fact, it happens all the time when photons (“light particles”) get above a certain energy - equivalent to high energy cosmic rays. However, this produces no solution to the problem of where the mass / energy comes from in the Big Bang, since it seems that matter and energy are just different forms of the same thing. It is where either of them came from in the first place that is the problem. But see later for my comments on miracles. We'd also resist the idea that God is “energy” in the sense the word is used in Physics.

In fact, that is the way that antimatter is produced currently - a few atoms at a time. Producing ¼ of a gram would be.... difficult. It contains roughly 1.5e23 atoms.

On p96, Dan Brown strongly implies that electrons and protons are opposites, as are up and down quarks. They aren't. The opposites are respectively positrons, antiprotons, antiup and antidown. Particle physicists are original like that.

Also on p96, a physicist claims that using a vacuum to “suck” antimatter would work. It wouldn't. Vacuums (or vacuua) don't suck - it's the pressure of the air that causes air to rush into them. On the other hand, using the fact that matter and antimatter are bent opposite ways by a magnet is the way that matter and antimatter are currently separated, and it doesn't produce ¼ of a gram.

On page 108, the claim is essentially made that if you make larger quantities, it is more efficient than smaller quantities. This is true. But the gain in efficiency decreases as the quantity increases. The efficiency can never exceed 1. That is why antimatter can never be used as an energy source, because even if we make it using a perfect system, we can never get more energy out than we put in. Antimatter could potentially (in the distant future) be used to store energy, but not as a fuel.

Yes, CERN does exist, and yes, the Web was invented there. I'm not an expert on it - my closest connection is that one of my supervisors at university worked there half the time. I think Dan Brown has very much transferred the US idea of a lab onto Europe, and then scaled it up to account for the size of CERN. Needless to say, I think the chance of the director of CERN ever having a Mach 15 jet at his disposal are very very small. I also very much doubt they go for the whole crazy over-technologising of everything (rooms with air conditioning that can freeze everything inside, etc). Physics in Europe is notoriously underfunded compared to in the US. CERN even have their own page correcting a lot of the mistakes here.

There is a large part of the story spent running around Rome looking for a radio source. All they needed to do was set up three receivers at that frequency, see the time differences between the signals and use that to locate the source.

Miscellaneous

On page p53, “Islamic” is described as a language.

Brown translates “Novus ordo seculorum” is translated as “new secular order” (as opposed to “new order of the age”). The Latin “seculorum” doesn't necessarily have implications of “secular” (though secular is derived from seculorum in the sense of “of this age” rather than “set apart”). For example, the Gloria in Latin reads “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.” (or secula seculorum). So “novus ordo seculorum” does not contradict “In God We Trust”. If you don't believe me, see here. Yes, of course there is Masonic influence in the US currency.

Brown claims that every story the BBC runs is “carefully researched and confirmed” (p289). Well, the examples I have known in real life as well as on the BBC haven't been.

Understanding of Christianity

The director of CERN says “There are no churches here. Physics is our religion.” This despite the fact that there are quite a few Christians who work at CERN, even in this story!

Christian belief is continually seen as false because it claims events happened which are contradicted by science. This is to make the same mistake as Hume. The argument goes something like this. “We know that such events are impossible, so we know that any claims they happened are false.” But how do we know those events are impossible? And why are they recorded? The people who recorded Jesus walking on water didn't think it was an everyday event. They knew it was normally impossible, which is why it was so important that it happened, because it showed that Jesus was not a normal man - that he could command nature and it obeyed, especially when that went against the normal way that nature works. If Jesus was God, then he could have commanded the world to do whatever he wanted to. God created the laws of the universe - he can tell it to do whatever it wants. The same goes for creation. Yes, the start of the universe cannot be explained in terms of the observed laws of the universe, as it involved a huge amount of mass / energy coming into existence from nothing. But God can do it - he is above the laws of the universe and they don't apply to him.

Incidentally, the twist at the end is nicked from a Father Brown story (GK Chesterton). Except, there the priest realises that it is being set up so that he seems to have risen from the dead, only for the “miracle” later to be exposed as a fraud. So he is totally honest about it from the start.

This links in to the general attitude to faith in the book. Faith is seen as involving a “suspension of disbelief” (p132) and as being something that, while useful for providing a moral framework, goes against the evidence. That is certainly a common view, but is not the traditional Christian one, nor is it the one taught in the Bible. As far as I recall, it was the view popularised by the Existentialist philosophers like Kierkegaard. The Christian view of faith is basically one of “trust”. On the basis of the available evidence, we decide to trust God. As we trust him more and more, we see that he is more and more trustworthy. Faith is not believing against the evidence; it is trusting our lives to God based on the evidence.

The famous (and wrong) “God of the Gaps” idea is also used on p43. Brown pictures religion and science as both about asking questions, most of which have now been answered by science, restricting religion to fewer and fewer questions. That isn't true at all. Here are some verses from the Bible.

God is more than we imagine; no one can count the years he has lived.
God gathers moisture into the clouds
and supplies us with rain.
Job 36:26-28, CEV

The sun knows its going down.
You make darkness, and it is night,
Psalm 104:19-20, MKJV

The writers, even though they were writing around 1000BC, clearly have a reasonable idea of how rain happens (moisture gathering in clouds) and that night is caused by the Sun going down. But that does not stop them from ascribing those same actions to God. The Bible does not say that the two are competing explanations - it treats them as complementary. Both descriptions are true.

History of Science and Christianity

However, the main area where Brown's treatment of history is hugely different from real life is in the historical relationship between science and Christianity. For example, on p50, Langdon claims that “since the beginning of history, a deep rift has existed between science and religion.” That just plain isn't true. While there were personal tussles and power struggles between scientists and the religious establishment (as happened with Galileo and Bruno), in many ways modern science sprung out of Christianity. The view that they have always been at conflict was actually invented in the late 1800s as part of the debate over Darwinism.

Many of the early opponents of Darwinism were Christians, not always because they believed the Bible taught it to be wrong, but because the evidence was shaky and because they had an alternative theory in direct creation, whereas the atheists had no alternative theories. To discredit these Christians, books were written which distorted the earlier debates with Galileo by saying that the church at the time taught that the Earth was flat and that the church had always opposed science. Neither was true. [At the time, the Roman Catholics had taken on board a lot of Greek philosophy, including Ptolemy's description of the Earth as a sphere at the centre of the universe. This was by no means held by all Christians, and isn't taught in the Bible.] There's a lot more detail on this in Kirsten Birkett's book Unnatural Enemies. Kirsten, if I remember correctly, has a PhD in History of Science, so knows what she is talking about.

See, for example, here or here for stuff on Galileo.

The current hostility is also hugely exaggerated.

I am not aware of any opposition to Particle Physics from Christians for example on principal. There may well be some on the grounds that particles physics tends to be very expensive, and many (Christians and non-Christians) think the money could be better used.

For example, the Vatican is said to be creationist on p159. Odd, since the (now previous) Pope is on record as saying that evolution is not incompatible with Christian belief.

And yet, the Vatican is strongly opposed to in vitro fertilisation, as it involves the production of many fertilised eggs, most of which are destroyed. They are not opposed because it is science, but because they believe it involves the destruction of human life. It is therefore incredibly unlikely that a priest and a nun would be allowed to go through the procedure, as they would need to have done thirty-something years before the story is set.

Of course, Brown's argument is more with the Roman Catholic Church, and especially with its claims to absolute truth than with Christianity itself. I am no great fan of the Roman Catholic Church; I agree that the concentration of power has in the past led to horrible abuses of that power, but the claims for the authority of the Christian message are shared by many other groups of Christians who do not abuse the power in the same way. To an extent, Brown attacks the part of Christianity most open to such attack - the Catholics, and then implies the same is true for all other groups, when his argument holds even less for them than it does for the Catholics.

Conclusion

All in all, an interesting read, but it would be easy for this book to mislead people who did not already know what Christianity taught and something of the history involved. I think that's the idea.

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