Dan Brown's Angels and Demons - Introduction

On a promotional web site for the film Angels and Demons, the plot summary required just three words: Science versus Religion.

This is the second of Dan Brown's bestselling novels to be adapted for the big screen. The first, of course, was the highly controversial The Da Vinci Code, released in 2006. While the first film generated protests from many quarters - devout Catholics, in particular - the jury is still out on whether Angels and Demons is deserving of a similarly vigorous and coordinated response from those who find fault with it. Meanwhile, the film is receiving generally positive reviews. The two stories are similar in numerous respects, but in the final analysis are fundamentally different. Please choose from the topics on the right to explore these similarities, differences, and learn more about the major story elements, or click Next to read the topics in sequence.


For an audio recording of a panel discussion on Angels and Demons featuring the author, please see here.

Angels and Demons vs The Da Vinci Code: Similarities and Differences

At a superficial level there are a surprising number of similarities between the two stories. The main character is the same: Harvard Symbologist Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks. The backdrop to the entire story is once again a secretive Catholic Church, which brutally suppresses those who threaten its power, especially those who claim access to knowledge which is not church-sanctioned.

In The Da Vinci Code, the threat to the church came in the form of Langdon's rediscovery of a secret society that had preserved a true and radically different account of the lives of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  In Angels and Demons, the threat comes from an ancient secret society of scientists, known as The Illuminati.

In both stories Langdon and a female companion race across Europe on a treasure hunt, following clues hidden in art treasures, churches, and catacombs, pursued by ruthless killers, and of course find their goal just in the nick of time. (In the book, Angels and Demons even has a brilliant, crippled, eccentric academic in the form of Max Kohler, who is reminiscent of Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code.)

Both novels are undeniably well-crafted as page-turners, brimming with excitement and intrigue, and while reception to the first film was cool, Angels and Demons is garnering more positive reviews.

When The Da Vinci Code entered the public stage it was perceived to be a plausible, and credible alternate history, i.e. as potentially true, albeit in novel form. The author and publishers were apparently happy for it to gain such a reputation. Since The Da Vinci Code revealed that all modern-day Christians have been deceived as to the nature of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and much of church history, it's understandable that controversy ensued. Many church leaders felt it necessary to respond to people who had found the ideas in the book and film persuasive.


Notes

Angels and Demons: Fact and/or Fiction?

An assessment of Angels and Demons is highly dependent on whether Dan Brown and the filmmakers intend us to evaluate it as a similar kind of work to The Da Vinci Code, i.e. as a serious challenge to the history of science and church history that's currently taught. If they do, then reviews will need to make reference to the very long list of scientific inaccuracies, historical inaccuracies, and mischaracterization of the complex and changing relationship between religion and the sciences through history.

However, there is good reason to believe that this is not their intent: With Angels and Demons, much of the drama takes place in public and in the present time, so it's clearly not meant to be interpreted as a factual account. The story's central conspiracy theory:  that the Catholic Church had felt threatened by the writings of Galileo and others, and had actively repressed their dissemination, is known by many to be at least partly true, and so is uncontroversial. However, for reasons which are complex, the continued existence of The Illuminati - a secret, brutal, world-wide organization of scientists, founded by Galileo - is not generally taken seriously by Dan Brown's critics or his supporters.

In the following sections we'll look at both options:

Evaluating Angels and Demons: As Fiction

If we avoid nit-picking its numerous inaccuracies, the underlying story is in many ways more interesting than The Da Vinci Code.

The story begins with the uncovering of an elaborate conspiracy to bring down the Catholic Church by blowing up the Vatican with an anti-matter (atom) bomb. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) discovers that the conspirators are a shadowy organization called The Illuminati - a group of scientists driven underground by the Catholic Church centuries ago. The explosives have been hidden somewhere in Vatican City, and Langdon has only a few hours to decode the Illuminati plot and find the bomb before it detonates.

The film adaptation focuses principally on just this outline, and what results is a thrilling treasure hunt, the central idea being simply the location of a time-bomb. However, in the novel Dan Brown has the time to work through several other major themes which are present but significantly muted in the film. There is a big clue to one of them in the title.

Main themes

It is unfortunate these secondary themes are less prominent in the film, for more see Plot Twists and Secrets in the Film and Book and Science and Religion in Conflict.

Evaluating Angels and Demons: As based on Facts

Dan Brown begins his novel (as he does The Da Vinci Code) claiming that major elements in the story are factual. For Angels and Demons, the claims surround anti-matter, CERN, The Illuminati, and historical locations in Rome.

This instantly adds intrigue, credibility, and importance to the story. And no-one can deny that the story is indeed based on facts at a superficial level. For example, anti-matter is real, and the CERN research facility in Switzerland (and France) is real. But a thorough evaluation shows that many of the secondary details in the story are inaccurate. For example, the description of anti-matter on the very first page is poor in several respects (e.g. the energy released during the annihilation of 1 gram of anti-matter is off by a factor of two; it would be double that of the Hiroshima bomb blast.[1])

Because of the sheer number of technical inaccuracies in the story - many of which are easy to research - it seems likely that Dan Brown included them simply to spice up the plot, and they are not intended to be scrutinized in detail. Nevertheless, for those who are curious, what follows is a discussion of the technical claims in the story.

The central scientific concepts in the story are related to: anti-matter, the relation of energy and matter through Einstein's E = mc2, the Big Bang where time (t) = 0, and the 'God Particle.'

The main historical elements in the story are: Galileo founded The Illuminati, the subsequent ‘Purga’ of 1668 that radicalized this secret society, and the perpetual conflict between science and religion.

Anti-Matter

The description of anti-matter in the story suggests that it is controversial, new, dangerous, and helpful for addressing the world's energy problems. In fact, anyone who has had a PET scan has had a first-hand encounter with antimatter since the P in PET stands for positron, which is an anti-matter version of an electron. While everyday physics, engineering and technology does not generally involve anti-matter, its existence was predicted and then confirmed in the 1920s and 1930s by Paul Dirac and others. So, far from being new, fundamental physics research since that time has inevitably involved the prediction and study of anti-matter versions of 'normal' matter.

While it is true that when matter and anti-matter meet they annihilate with the energy given by E = mc2 (doubled since the anti-matter and equivalent normal matter are destroyed) Dan Brown's characterization of this annihilation needs to be fleshed out.

Firstly, there is no net gain of mass/energy in the annihilation, so unfortunately it cannot serve as a source of free energy. In the novel, Vittoria demonstrates to Langdon the impressive amount of energy that is released when just '5000 nanograms' (i.e 5 micrograms) of antimatter annihilates by interacting with its container (page 64, 69). Brown describes this as a brilliant flash of light where the container simply disappears, but the effect in reality would be far more dramatic. The energy released would be roughly equivalent to a 500 lb TNT bomb blast. But very importantly, the energy required to produce that much anti-matter in the first place is greater than that in a 500 lb bomb. In short, anti-matter is - pound-for-pound - the most dense and efficient means of storing energy (which is why it is a favorite power source for sci-fi spacecraft propulsion) but it is of no help with our everyday energy needs. (see p71)

A recurring theme in the story is science as illumination - as light. Dan Brown describes an anti-matter annihilation in an analogous manner, as pure energy, pure light.  In reality, a 5 microgram annihilation would be far more than simply illuminating. While it's true that light would be produced (i.e. electromagnetic radiation), it would not be simply white light like that we see from the Sun, it would be in the form of high energy Gamma radiation and X-rays - like that produced by an atom bomb's initial flash - this would then irradiate the surrounding matter, heating and ionizing it, releasing secondary particles and forming a shockwave. All in all, it would be an unhealthy affair. (p65-67)


Notes

The God Particle

Interwoven with the discussion of anti-matter and Creation are references to the so-called 'God Particle.' This is an unfortunate label which some have used to refer to the hypothesized Higgs Boson. While the search for the Higgs Boson is central to the current research work at CERN, it is not directly connected to the discussions on anti-matter and Creation. It acquired the nickname because of it's importance to physics rather than its metaphysical nature. Current physics predicts it will be found by the Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN. If it is found, it will provide an explanation for why objects have mass, and give scientists confidence that the 'standard model' of physics is on the right track. If it is not found, then it will leave mass and gravity still needing an explanation,[2] and suggest that the standard model of physics will one day be superseded by a new theory.[3]

For more on Peter Higgs, see this CERN video. For more on the nick-name see hereR,

The Physics of Creation

The description of Vittoria and Vetra's physics breakthrough is a little vague, but it's possible Dan Brown means to suggest that they had found a way to create anti-matter in a new way, where the energy required is less than that given by E = mc2. If so, this would indeed be revolutionary - the equivalent of a 'perpetual motion machine' that can produce limitless free energy.

Such a discovery would certainly change all of physics, and indeed the world. Since this would be creating something out of nothing (in latin: creatio ex nihilo) then there are obvious connections to religious concepts, as she goes on to note. But in a move that seems to contradict this argument, she goes on to say the "Big Bang and Genesis can be explained simply by accepting the presence of an enormous source of energy" (p60) apparently believing this would provide a newly scientific explanation for the religious concept of Creation. But in fact her description is very similar to the current models of the early universe, i.e. a mind-bogglingly dense point of intense energy. Unfortunately, such a description does not serve as an explanation of Creation since the 'enormous source of energy' still needs to be accounted for.

It is true that some people take this to be synonymous with God, but this is logically equivalent to a straightforward non-scientific claim that God is the source of the Universe/Energy - regardless of how the Universe came to exist.

Since the big-bang theory gained popularity there has been a continuing discussion on whether it is theologically important. For more see: Is the Big Bang a Moment of Creation? and Big Bang Cosmology and Creation Theology.

While anti-matter and the 'God-particle' do not relate directly to the concept of Creation, other areas of physics research do come close, notably quantum-mechanics and quantum cosmology. For more, see Quantum Cosmology and Theological Responses to Quantum Cosmology.


Notes

Other Technical Notes

Galileo’s Illuminati

As Dan Brown claims, the word ‘Illuminati’ does mean illumination, or enlightened ones, and there is no doubt that various groups of people have used this name to refer to themselves through history, notably the Bavarian Illuminati that was formed in 1776. But there is little evidence for The Illuminati described in the story, i.e. a secret society founded by Galileo in the 1500s (p28). For an interesting Wikipedia article on the subject, please see here.

The organization described by Brown is a most fascinating one. On the one hand, it is dedicated to pure science and considers the church to be “spewing superstition” (p32) and yet it integrates with ideas from occultists, mystics, and even Satanists (p28). Even in modern times they consider the world to be made of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. On a related note, it is true that the period of history known as the Enlightenment saw great advances in science, and growing threats to church authority.


Notes

The Purga of 1668 and Catholic Suppression of Science

Perhaps the most blatant fiction in Dan Brown’s story is the 1668 ‘purga’ where the Catholic Church is alleged to have branded scientists with a sign of the cross to purge them of their sins (p131). It is clearly helpful to the plot for this to have occurred, but it did not happen. Nevertheless, it must also be said that the Catholic Church has at times been famously brutal when sentencing those convicted of heresy.

The most famous case in this regard is that of Giordano Bruno. In the year 1600 Bruno - a Dominican priest - was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church. It is often said that he was killed for his scientific ideas. It’s true that Bruno believed that the Universe was infinite, and filled with countless other worlds (each world had its own soul and was populated by other beings). According to popular myth, Bruno was executed for these ideas, but as far as we know, Bruno's science wasn't the issue at all. What the church deemed heretical was his advocacy of a magical and animistic religion, his denial of the divinity of Jesus, and his view that Jesus got what he deserved when he was crucified!

On page 27, Max Kohler, the head of CERN claims that scientists (implying Copernicus) "were murdered by the church for revealing truths. Religion has always persecuted science.” While we can no doubt find fault with the manner in which the church has treated some scientists, historians do not believe any scientists including Galileo were killed or threatened with death by the Catholic Church because of their research.[4]

The Galileo Affair

According to Dan Brown, the ‘Galileo Affair’ was a simple matter; Galileo had dangerous new scientific data that the Church repressed. The reality is far, far more complex. As with the other inaccuracies, the truth would undoubtedly have bogged down Brown’s fast-paced story, but it’s important to know that while Langdon claims his (Galileo’s) “data were incontrovertible” (p28) in fact his data were not compelling, and it would take many years before experimental evidence would become persuasive. And Galileo did not know that the Geocentric model of the solar system was “dead wrong” (p168). Of course, with hindsight, we can say his hunch was an extremely good one.

It's not widely known that Galileo’s research was initially funded by the church. This is hard to reconcile with the suggestion that the church simply murdered scientists wherever they could be found. While it’s true that Galileo was forced to water-down the description of his theory so that it was merely a proposed alternate mathematical model, and then held under house arrest for the rest of his life, he was never jailed. In fact, he was permitted to continue his research, and published his most important work after the trial.

For more see The Galileo Affair and Galileo and the Sun-Centered Solar System

Science and Religion in Conflict

On page 38 Professor Langdon summarizes the major tension driving the plot: Science and Religion are ‘oil and water’, arch enemies. "Since the beginning of history,” he says, “a deep rift has existed between science and religion" (p27). But is it really that simple? If we ignore the first problem with this claim (science has not been around since the beginning of history) is conflict the only manner in which the two are related? If we define religion as irrational superstition then perhaps, but the truth is Western science emerged from within a religious (Christian) cultural context. Galileo was a devout Catholic, and Isaac Newton was certainly a fervent believer. Both had their problems with church authority and orthodoxy, but they were undoubtedly religious. So conflict is clearly not the only option. In fact, there are several proposed typologies that try to make sense of the complex relationship.

The conflict-relation in Dan Brown’s story fits because he has written rich characters that represent extreme positions. Maximilian Kohler, the head of CERN, is dedicated to “pure science” (p17) and perceives all religion to be a cancer (p19).[5] In fact, he believes that science will shortly provide answers to all questions, including ‘what are we doing here?’ and ‘what is the meaning of the universe?’ (p22). Similarly, the Pontiffs Camerlengo gradually reveals himself to be skeptical of scientific research that’s not subject to church authority. But in the real world, very few research projects exist as ‘pure science’ - they inevitably have ethical, economic, philosophical, or even theological implications. And a researcher’s particular orientation to ethics, economics and philosophy will shape the work that they choose to do, and sometimes even the theories they propose.

Dan Brown describes Vittoria and her research partner as representing a subgroup of scientists who do not see their work as necessarily in conflict with religion. In fact, Vittoria contradicts Kohler, acknowledging that logic and science is “bereft of moral responsibility” (p80).

Today it’s easy to find situations where people perceive science and religion to be in conflict, but also easy to find scientists and theologians who believe they should exist independently, often because they join Vittoria in recognizing that science cannot provide much help with moral challenges. There are some who take this further and believe its possible for a creative mutual interaction to occur.

It is quite ironic that writing twelve years before the publication of Angels and Demons, Pope John Paul II suggested:

"Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish."[6]

For more on this complex subject see:

Religion and the Rise of Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate
Science and Religion at War?
The Separation of Science and Religion
The Friendship of Science and Religion (John Polkinghorne)
The Changing Relations between Science and Theology (John Brooke)

Notes

Plot Twists and Secrets in the Film and Book

Note: this section reveals what happens at the end of the story, so if you wish to enjoy the book or film without knowing what happens ahead of time, please choose another topic.


Apart from minor characters and subplots that are missing from the film, the most dramatic difference between the book and film concerns the Camerlengo (played by Ewan McGregor). In the film we eventually learn that he is ambitious and deeply misguided, but in the book he is more unambiguously evil - demonic, even.

In the book, the Camerlengo chooses to let the worldwide media know about the Illuminati plot to destroy the Vatican, thus creating global sympathy for the helpless Church (p319). Of course, this is a deception since the Camerlengo knows where the bomb is since he hid it himself.

Unlike in the film, while live on camera, he concedes defeat to The Illuminati, acknowledging that Science has won and Religion has lost. However, he then publicly fakes a last-minute miraculous revelation, claiming that God has revealed the location of the bomb to him. Of course, he then retrieves the bomb from where he stashed it earlier, and 'saves' the Vatican.

The book notes that the public cheer at this revelation because they've "had an assurance of the beyond, a substantiation of the power of the Creator" (p429). The Cardinals too are sure they've been witness to a supernatural revelation and salvation, with one exception: Mortati, who still has doubts.

In both versions the Camerlengo's success is short-lived; we discover that The Illuminati threat is a charade he has fabricated built upon bits and pieces of actual history. We also infer that the Camerlengo has himself hired the assassin who stole the anti-matter, and brutally murdered Vittoria's father and the four Cardinals. In the book it is revealed that he killed the Pope once he learned that he had fathered a son, thus breaking his vow of celibacy. However, he then learns that the Pope's child was conceived through in-vitro fertilization (thus preserving his chastity) (p456) and that the child he fathered is the Camerlengo himself.

The epic scale of this personal drama is perhaps better suited to a TV soap than a serious film, so its understandable that the filmmakers chose to simplify the screenplay. Nevertheless, it's clear this is in the book in order to continue the exploration of the  difficulties that can occur when religious traditions run into scientific advances.

The novel does an effective job of introducing two important questions that occur when science and religion meet:

So as the story concludes, and The Illuminati threat has been shown to be an insidious fiction, it's perhaps ironic that a key message of the film is to beware of being taken in by conspiracy theories.


Notes

Suggested Links

CERN

Wikipedia

Others



[1] Because 1g of anti-matter would annihilate with 1g of ordinary matter, so 2g are consumed.

[2] An explanation of mass and gravity in terms of particle physics, that is. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Einstein's General Relativity has provided a robust explanation of gravity acting on masses as a curvature of spacetime.

[3] If the Higgs Boson is found, then current physics will be able to produce a single unified account of all four forces. This is sometimes referred to as a GUT, a Grand Unified Theory. Until that is accomplished, it's generally agreed that physics is incomplete. Other theories are waiting in the wings that hope to supersede the 'standard model', notably string theory/m-theory.

[4] In 2000 Pope John Paul II did offer an official apology for errors of church, specifically including reference to Galileo's trial.

[5] We learn later that his hatred of religion was formed primarily by personal experience, rather than being a purely academic conclusion.

[6] Physics, Philosophy and Theology, p. M13.