A beautiful place

February 13, 2009

Actor Tom Hanks looked as though he could happily have stuck around CERN for a bit longer than permitted by Sony's hectic Angels & Demons promotional tour. In fact, so impressed was Hanks by the LHC during his two-day visit in February that he told CERN's Director of Accelerators and Technology, Steve Myers, while on a trip around the ATLAS experiment, that he'd like to come and help 'press the button' when the machine switches back on this year.

"I didn't know how complicated a particle accelerator needed to be," Hanks told a pack of journalists assembled in the Globe of Science and Innovation on 13 February. "But it certainly is a lot more complicated than one would think. Humans are amazing entities if we can imagine this thing in the first place, let alone build it."

A space enthusiast and self-confessed geek when it comes to the Apollo lunar missions, Hanks was reminded of NASA when he arrived at CERN the previous day. He compared the particle physics lab to Cape Canaveral or Cape Kennedy, where he said first impressions of "bad office buildings and weeds" are soon eclipsed by the sight of an orbiter hooked up to its boosters ready for launch.

To see CERN's equivalent of the space shuttle – the 27 km circumference LHC and its four colossal detectors – Hanks had to go underground, of course. Shortly after emerging from his ATLAS tour, a visibly enthused Hanks exclaimed that the 7000 tonne detector was about the most amazing thing he'd ever seen.

Hanks finds it appealing to play intelligent characters like Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist locked onto an ancient brotherhood's plot to destroy the Vatican using antimatter stolen from CERN. But what did the Apollo 13 and Forrest Gump star – who says he got a D in physics – make of CERN's science?

"We all keep trying to come up with the metaphor or the analogy that's going to explain what the hell they're doing here," he told journalists. "Well I heard it today: you have a toy electric train going around at the speed of light. You have another train going the opposite way at the speed of light. And when they decide to crash those two electric trains, a new mode of transportation will be born - some kind of spit-powered, air-controlled vehicle that requires no oil and can carry a billion people!" Earlier during his visit, however, he admitted that "essentially physics is a theory I don't understand, but as an actor I could enthral you for 30 minutes talking about it.

As for the science in Angels & Demons, which involves an unfeasibly large lump of antimatter, Hanks says the reality is different to the portrayal in Dan Brown's novel. "You notice there's not big security around CERN? That's because there's nothing to steal, not even a secret," he said, pointing out that even if someone tried to walk away with what CERN has developed they would still need billions of dollars to go back and build anything.

But the actor, who recalls being inspired by visiting an observatory when he was young and seeing Jupiter's moons, thinks that great things can come from a film that features a place like CERN even if the science is not spot on. "Don't discount how cool a movie can make something mundane look," he said. "I guarantee that after seeing the movie some kids are going to go into their physics or their science class and ask: is this anything like the particle accelerator in Angels & Demons? And the teachers are going to roll their eyes and say 'yes, in fact it's very much like the particle accelerator in Angels & Demons...'."

Asked whether CERN's quest for nature's mathematical laws takes the wonder out of the world, as suggested by the Vatican in Brown's book, Hanks returned a resolute 'no': "Mystery is the thing that propels artists along in trying to understand the human condition," he said at a press conference following a short preview of the film. "CERN is doing something similar and that's why CERN is a beautiful place - part of the grand unified theatre of humankind." Hanks painted CERN as a "wonderful school" and a "time machine. "Magic is not happening here, magic is being explained here," he said.

By Matthew Chalmers

Source : CERN