SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN DAN BROWN’S ‘ANGELS AND DEMONS’

3 September 2011 , Articles

Nidhal Guessoum
American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

 

With the mega-success and controversy of “The Da Vinci Code” (2003), Dan Brown became famous worldwide. Previous to that, he had published 3 novels, which later became best sellers as well: “Digital Fortress” (1998), “Angels and Demons” (2000)[1], and “Deception Point” (2001). All four novels share the same concept and structure: each is a thriller that takes place in 24 hours; each involves a conspiracy (sometimes around famous organizations ranging from NASA and the Vatican to the Knight Templars, the Opus Dei, and the Illuminati); each includes advanced science and/or cryptography; and each involves scholars and has a young, beautiful, and high-IQ female scientist who plays a primary role in the story.

Three of the four novels are prefaced with a “Facts” page that presents major ideas of the book as facts. The reader is therefore led to believe that the novels, although works of fiction, have been so thoroughly researched that one should take every bit as truth, however surprising or unheard-of it may be. However, due to the religiously explosive thesis of “The Da Vinci Code” (that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene, had a child with her, and was preparing her to lead Christendom after his disappearance), several researchers produced books and documentaries trying to prove that various parts of the book, from trivial factoids to major historical events, had been misrepresented by Brown. So a shadow has been cast over the novel(s) and its (their) contents.

The book I am reviewing here is interesting and relevant in many regards. First, it is the closest and most similar of the novels to “The Da Vinci Code”: the same religious symbology scholar (Robert Langdon) is the hero of both books; the second hero in each case is the “ideal” woman (smart, beautiful, enlightened) who in each case happens to be the daughter of the scholar who gets murdered in the first scene; Christianity (through the Jesus-Mary Magdalene story or through the Vatican) plays a central role in the story, etc. In “Angels and Demons”, moreover, Science is the other major actor, who is all the while accused and prosecutor… In fact, the whole plot is built around the Science – Religion tug of war, which is why I felt that a full critique was in order. Finally, one antagonist was an Arab Muslim; for some reason Brown decided to make him an awful monster in the most blatantly racist way, as I will show later.

Let me first briefly summarize the plot, so that the following critique can be better appreciated. A scientist is found murdered and branded in his chest with an Illuminati[2]ambigram[3] in his CERN office. It turns out that this scientist is also a priest, and he has been working on a project (matter-antimatter creation) that can prove the “scientific validity” of the Genesis biblical account of creation. Later it is found that he had succeeded in creating and storing substantial amounts of antimatter, and that the canister which contains the latter has been stolen and taken to inside the Vatican, where it will explode in less than 24 hours, pulverizing the holy city… A thrilling chase ensues both to find the canister in time and to understand the Illuminati’s plan.

In this commentary, I will show that Brown’s knowledge, understanding, and research of science, particularly modern physics, is mediocre and crude at best. His depiction of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is mostly contemptuous, although he did show a good appreciation of the nature of faith (pure and detached from organized religion). However, his characterizations of the science-religion debates are simplistic. Finally, his description of the Arab assassin, who appears in a good dozen scenes but remains nameless and is only referred to as the “Hassassin” (throughout the book), is downright racist. In short, the book displays so much shocking material (factually and morally wrong) that one is led to dismiss all works of Dan Brown, no matter how much one is reminded that they are supposed to be “fiction” and based on “facts”.

Let me start with the science part, since that is the part I know best and can assess most accurately. Brown’s presentation of scientific concepts and theories ranges from the erroneous to the simplistic. To give an early example, Brown defines “creationism” as “the battle over how the universe came to be”! (p. 89)

More importantly, his description of “antimatter”, which in many regards plays a central role in the story, is fundamentally flawed; for instance, the murdered scientist-priest is said to have “recreated the Big Bang” (p. 92) after he accomplished a feat that will “shake the very foundation of modern physics” (p. 92), namely colliding two beams of high-energy particles together, resulting in the appearance of antimatter! Brown does not seem to know that positrons (anti-electrons) were predicted by Dirac in 1928, discovered by Anderson in 1930, and detected millions of times in the past decades, and that the annihilation of positrons with electrons has not only been observed and measured from space countless times[4], but is now being used in medicine, in what is known as PET – “Positron Emission Tomography”… Most importantly, the fact that energy can be transformed into particles has not only been a staple of modern physics for a century now (since Einstein’s Special Relativity, published in 1905), it is not tantamount to “crea[ting] matter… out of nothing” as the director of CERN (!) proclaims (p. 93) and does not represent any kind of miracle as the protagonists claim and the whole plot upholds…

Brown does not even know what antiparticles are; when Langdon asks Vittoria, the beautiful genius: “So antimatter is real?” she replies: “Everything has an opposite. Protons have electrons. Up-quarks have down-quarks… Antimatter is the yin to matter’s yang. It balances the physical equation.” (p. 96). (The factual and conceptual errors in these statements are enormous.) A moment later, Vittoria tells Kohler, the CERN director, just how much antimatter she and her father had created and stored: “Five thousand nanograms…. A liquid plasma containing millions of positrons.” (pp. 97-98). In fact, it would take only a few seconds for any student of physics to figure out that 5000 ng would amount to millions of billions of billions of positrons… The scene gets even more grossly ludicrous when Vittoria invites the two men to place their eyes to the viewer to see the “shimmering globule of mercurylike liquid…. hovering like magic…” (pp. 98-99). She then lets the antimatter “liquid” annihilate with the surrounding matter, producing a flash of light. Since the writer (correctly) estimated that the explosion of the quarter-gram canister of antimatter that had been sneaked into the Vatican will amount to a 5 kiloton equivalent of TNT, the explosion of the smaller 5000-ng sample would have amounted to 100 kg of TNT power; our three heroes should never have stood nearby…

In the end, Vittoria triumphantly declares antimatter to be: “…the energy source of tomorrow. A thousand times more powerful than nuclear energy. One hundred percent efficient. No byproducts. No radiation. No pollution. A few grams could power a major city for a week.” (p. 102) In these statements, Brown shows he does not even understand the concept of “energy source” and does not realize that creating matter-antimatter pairs (since they always go together) requires at least as much energy (considering there will always be some losses) as one later gets back when the antimatter ultimately annihilates with the matter… How that can constitute a one hundred percent efficient (whatever that means) energy source is a leap that even fiction cannot allow.

Perhaps one might counter that it is not expected of a popular novel writer to be that scientifically accurate; my response is that first the errors I have pointed out are fundamental and huge, and I have left out many little trivial slip-ups (e.g. magnetic sweepers that are “recalibrated for sub-three-ohm flux fields”), and secondly, such huge blunders cast a very long shadow on the “research” that Dan Brown presumably puts into his works of fiction and thus on the descriptions of the organizations (and conspiracies) he puts into his novels.

The question of religion, and its relation with science (in the past and in the present), gets a similarly shoddy treatment, although the misrepresentations in this area are not so trivial, but nonetheless quite unnerving. From the outset, Brown sets religion and science as historical arch-enemies, who have been trying to remove one another from society. Brown writes: “Since the beginning of history, a deep rift has existed between science and religion. Outspoken scientists like Giordano Bruno – were murdered… by the church for revealing scientific truths. Religion has always persecuted science” (p. 50); let us ignore the grossly erroneous statements here… Later, when the idea of scientists not being necessarily atheists is voiced, the murdered “scientist-priest” is referred to as a “theo-physicist”. Brown then adds: “Theo-physicist? Langdon thought it sounded impossibly oxymoronic” (p. 63). The CERN director, staunchly anti-religious in the novel, does point out that a “small field” has appeared recently among some physicists who have been trying to “fuse science and religion” and who call this new field “new physics”; he adds: “The field is small, but it’s bringing fresh answers to some old questions – questions about the origin of the universe and the forces that bind us all”; on the latter idea alludes to quantum entanglement, which he refers to as “interconnectedness”. Elsewhere, however, Brown makes his protagonists claim that the church has rejected even such unification attempts: “the unification of science and religion was not what the church wanted…. The union would have nullified the church’s claim as the sole vessel through which man could understand God.” (p. 51)

Later in the book, he brings up the “anthropic principle” (without naming it precisely), the “multiverse” hypothesis, and even attempts at explaining divine intervention scientifically, using quantum entanglement or invisible fields (p. 531-32)… Brown is thus clearly aware that modern science cannot so easily be set against religion (as a general principle), but nevertheless he depicts this opposition and antagonism as the historical and current paradigm.

Indeed, Brown uses the “religion against science” theme as a leitmotiv that comes up again and again in the book. Let me give a few striking examples:

  • “Science has now provided answers to almost every question man can ask. There are only a few questions left, and they are the esoteric ones. Where do we come from? What are we doing here? What is the meaning of life and the universe? […] ‘And these are the questions CERN is trying to answer?’ Correction. These are the questions we are answering.” (p. 43)
  • “The church may not be burning scientists at the stake anymore, but if you think they’ve released their reign over science, ask yourself why half the schools in your country [the US] are not allowed to teach evolution…” (p. 65) If that sounds wildly exaggerated, consider the fact that toward the end of the book, Brown reveals that the reason why the CERN director is both paralyzed and staunchly anti-religious is the refusal by his deeply religious parents to allow doctors to give him medicine (in Germany during the 1950’s!) when he got seriously sick as a child…
  • In the course of the plot, some banners are hung by the religious crowd that read: “Antimatter is the Antichrist! Scientist = Satanist”… (p. 515)
  • “Satan is shrewd. As time passed, he cast off his diabolical countenance for a new face… the face of pure reason.” (p. 575)
  • The reemergence of the Illuminati in recent times (in the novel, that is) is described as: “It seemed that after centuries of persecution, science had bitten back.” (p. 191)
  • “CERN scientists have been criticizing Vatican policies for decades. They regularly petition us [the Vatican] for retraction of the Creationist theory, formal apologies for Galileo and Copernicus, repeal of our criticism against dangerous or immoral research…” (p. 159) “The Vatican called CERN from time to time as a ‘courtesy’ before issuing scathing statements condemning CERN’s research – most recently for CERN’s breakthroughs in nanotechnology, a field the church denounced because of its implications for genetic engineering…” (p. 367)
  • The CERN director “was sickened by the opulence of the Hallway of the Belvedere. The gold leaf in the ceiling alone probably could have funded a year’s worth of cancer research.” (p. 495-6)
  • “[Vetra, the scientist-priest] was considered dangerous by many purists at CERN. Fusing science and God is the ultimate scientific blasphemy.” (p. 503)
  • In the world-televised address that the papal chamberlain gives toward the end of the novel, he reinforces the belief that science and religion are fundamentally different and thus cannot be allies: “For centuries, the church has stood by while science picked away at religion bit by bit. Debunking miracles. Training the mind to overcome the heart. Condemning religion as the opiate of the masses. They denounce God as a hallucination – a delusional crutch for those too weak to accept that life is meaningless…. What is wrong with the admission that something exists beyond our understanding? The day science substantiates God in a lab is the day people stop needing faith!… Science, by definition, is soulless. Divorced from the heart…. But when science heralds its Godless pursuit as the enlightened path? Promising answers to questions whose beauty is that they have no answers?… No.” (p. 585-6)

However, and as I stated briefly in the introduction, Brown does display a certain appreciation and respect for faith, at least the pure spiritual feeling or experience of God, not faith as prescribed by organized religion. Early in the novel, Vittoria asks the Langdon, the religious symbology scholar, whether he believes in God, and when he tells her he does not accept the codes of conduct and belief that holy books impose, she gives his an enlightening mini-lecture: “I did not ask you if you believe what man says about God. I asked you if you believed in God. There is a difference. Holy scripture is stories… legends and history of man’s quest to understand his own need for meaning. I am not asking you to pass judgment on literature. I am asking you if you believe in God. When you lie out under the stars, do you sense the divine? Do you feel in your gut that you are staring up at the work of God’s hand?” (p. 133) The conversation continues further with Langdon later asking: “So you’re saying that whether you are a Christian or a Muslim simply depends on where you were born?” Vittoria replies: “Isn’t it obvious? […] Faith is universal. Our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some of us go to Mecca, some of us study sub-atomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth, that which is greater than ourselves.” And Vittoria adds: “Science tells me God must exist. My mind tells me I will never understand God. And my heart tells me I am not meant to.” One may or may not agree fully with this philosophy, but it is very cogent, rational and reasonable, and the closest that Brown has come to balancing faith and reason, science and religion, God and man…

I wish I could have ended this review with the previous quote and summation. There was, however, an unfortunate major part of the book that shocked me tremendously and that I feel I must bring to the addition of the reader. This is the part involving the Hassassin, a modern-day member of a medieval Muslim sect that indulged in hashish after murderous raids. This assassin, however, is an Arab who gets called upon by the Illuminati to realize horrendous acts of mutilation and murder on top-level Vatican cardinals. In the 600+ pages of the novel, only one sentence is given to justify this strange alliance between the Illuminati (which is supposed to symbolize science and enlightenment) and the Hassassin (the embodiment of bestial terror): “We share an enemy”, i.e. the Church, presumably because the Hassassin sect formed as a defense group against the crusaders’ massacres of Muslims… In another strange reference, Brown makes our religious symbology scholar claim that the Vatican referred to the Illuminati as “Shaitan” (Satan in Arabic): “Shaitan? [asks the CERN director] It’s Islamic [replies Langdon]. It means ‘adversary’… God’s adversary. The church chose Islam for the name because it was a language they considered dirty.”

Now the description given of the Hassassin’s personality and behavior is incredibly outrageous: “An appetite for hedonistic pleasures was something bred into him by his ancestors. His ancestors indulged in hashish, but he preferred a different kind of gratification. He took pride in his body – a well-tuned lethal machine…” (p. 53-54) “In his country women were possessions. Weak. Tools of pleasures. Chattel to be traded like livestock. And they understood their place. But here, in Europe, women feigned a strength and independence that both amused and excited him. Forcing them into physical submission was a gratification he always enjoyed. […] She was subhuman, a vehicle only of pleasure and service.” (p. 86) “Seeing terror in a woman’s eyes was his ultimate aphrodisiac.” (p. 432) “Then, at the moment of his own climax, he would slit her throat. Ghayat assa’adah, they called it. The ultimate pleasure.” [Wrong translation, no surprise!] (p. 476). And even a nun, who makes a fleeting passage in the plot, when asked if she had seen a strange character pass by, mentions having seen a “bar-àrabo”, which Langdon explains (to Vittoria) as “barbarian…. a derogatory wordplay. It means Àrabo… Arab.” (p. 406).

If this may sound preposterous, what is one to make of a few references in the plot where this animalistic Hassassin turns out to speak superb English and have a superior general culture and knowledge of the Illuminati? In a climactic confrontation with Langdon, he taunts his adversary: “What is your American adagio? He chided. Something about curiosity and the cat?” (p. 485) And in a moment alone, “He admired the legendary chamber around him. I am sitting in the Church of Illumination, he thought. The Illuminati lair. He could not believe it was here after all of these centuries.”

So, to conclude, despite some inspiring passages about one’s sincere belief in God, the problem of evil (to which a beautiful explanation is given), and the need for humans to find meaning in life and nature, all in all this novel is not to be recommended. It contains too many flaws, from the erroneous depictions of scientific concepts to the simplistic oppositional positioning of religion and science, not to mention the outrageous and downright racist description of the only non-western participant in the plot (the Arab Hassassin). In fact, this could be the perfect piece for studying how we come to misunderstand, distrust, and even hate one another as cultures or as students of societies and nature.

 

[1] The quotes and page numbers given in this review are from the Corgi edition: 2001, Great Britain.
[2] “The Enlightened”, a medieval esoteric society of scientists and academics who decided to resist the church’s repression of rational inquiry; the “Illuminati” is also claimed to still exist today as a vehemently anti-religious secret international group.
[3]  An ambigram is a sign that reads the same way upward and downward or rightward and leftward.
[4] The director of CERN exclaims: “The substance you’re referring to… exists… not even in our galaxy!”