On the physics in Dan Brown’s ‘Angels and Demons’

I thought I’d post today on the accuracy of the physics in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

I got inspired to launch a small science rant while reading a post on Herman Kok’s blog, pointing out the latest Brownian silliness in Inferno – a reference to ‘HIV Virus’, which means Brown is actually saying ‘Human Immunodeficiency Virus Virus’.

I haven’t read Inferno, but I have read Angels and Demons where Brown insisted, on p.96 of my 2001 Corgi edition, that the antiparticle of the proton is the electron.

A photo I took of the Louvre. I am 100% certain that the Holy Grail is NOT situated under that pyramid in the centre left of frame. though the reception desk is.

A photo I took of the Louvre. I am 100% certain that the Holy Grail is NOT situated under that pyramid in the centre left of frame. though the reception desk is.

This is total nonsense, obvious from any junior high school science text. The antiparticle of the proton is the anti-proton; the antiparticle of the electron is the positron. The positron was discovered by Carl David Anderson of CalTech in 1932, just four years after Paul Dirac, pondering how quantum physics might work in an Einsteinian universe, theorised that anti-particles had to exist.

Mind you, Angels and Demons was also the book where Brown had his hero fall 10,000 feet without a parachute, slowed only by a helicopter windscreen tarpaulin, splashing into the Tiber and walking away unscathed (pp. 555-557). Um…quite. The formula for the acceleration is a = delta V/delta T. Now, he’s slowed by a 4 x 2 metre tarp, which he’s holding in his hands. This would make a terrible parachute and likely gyrate wildly. Langdon’s big problem would be keeping his grip. A typical crush grip for a male hand (the grip you use to hold on with) is around 60 kg per hand. Langdon’s an academic (no upper body strength) but even if he was a weightlifter, there’s a high chance the tarp would be ripped out of his grip, certainly as his forearms tired (that’s where grip strength comes from).

No matter. Let’s generously assume Langdon can hold on to it, and even more generously suppose it slows him to, say, 5/6 typical terminal velocity for a human falling feet-first – 90 mph. In SI units that’s 40.2 metres per second. Given that the Tiber varies from 2.5 to 6 metres in depth, he probably belly-flopped – the alternative is slashing through the water and likely hitting the river bed. Let’s assume he decelerated on water impact to zero in 0.1 seconds. Generous given water surface tension effects, but hey… Plugging all that through the equation implies a peak force of 40.99 gravities on his mortal frame, plus the second-order jerk effects ( j = delta a/delta t) that would induce much, much higher instantaneous accelerations (expressed in m/s <exp>3). Medically, anything over 25 gravities is unlikely to be survivable – certainly, Langdon would have had very serious injuries, fractures, hemorhaging and so forth.

Oh hey – the word is ‘splat’.

Generously, though, maybe Brown’s books are set in an alternate universe where  the laws of physics differ, though as a friend of mine pointed out, if you monkey with one of them (gravity, for instance, to let Langdon plop into the Tiber without suffering multiple compound fractures, soft tissue tearing, etc) you’ll destabilise the rest and the universe would end up being not only stranger than we imagine…but, with due apologies to J B S Haldane, stranger than we can imagine.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Brown’s physics in Angels and Demons are about as hokey as his Parisian geography in The Da Vinci Code, his historical accuracy, and his knowledge of what ‘da’ meant in the name of Leonardo da Vinci (it is ‘of’, Mr Brown. Of. As in Leonard of Vinci. It’s where he came from. Comprendez?)

I mention these because they are points I’ve checked personally. Does anybody else have a Brownian gaffe they’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

16 comments on “On the physics in Dan Brown’s ‘Angels and Demons’

  1. KokkieH says:

    Just wondering: what did he say “da” meant? Can’t remember and I really don’t want to read it again right now.

  2. Stuart Young says:

    Oh I’m chuckling! Only you Matthew can dissect the implausible in such a definitive way. Plus, I literally just came up to my office to get away from The Da Vinci Code on TV. :)

  3. mentisfugit says:

    Hmm, can you pick up the HIV virus from the keypad on an ATM machine while entering your PIN number?

    • Maybe in a Dan Brown physics world. For the rest of us in the universe defined by Drs Einstein, Bohr, Hawking et al, the only likely pick up is fecal coliform. I wish I hadn’t just envisaged that.

  4. jjspina says:

    Wow, Matthew, that is too much to comprehend! Does Dan Brown know about all this? Who will tell him? Not me! You are surprisingly knowledgeable about physics. I will keep that in mind if I have some hero or heroine in my novels falling from heights. LOL.

  5. Details, details. 10 feet. 10,000 feet. In terms of the distance from here to the sun that isn’t much difference at all! Ha ha ha…
    And clearly the Holy Grail is a stapler.

  6. No, no. nothing to add. You are doing a fine job gaffing Brown on your own. :-)

  7. KM Huber says:

    I agree there is nothing to add to this wonderful post, Matthew. The Brown phenomenon has always amazed me, whether it is the physics of science or the physics of story. Perhaps he tells a story people want to believe; I honestly don’t know. Really enjoyed the post.
    Karen

    • Thanks. There has to be something behind Brown’s extraordinary popularity – all the more so given the ineptitude of his writing. I think you’re right – people want to believe his stories; and by choosing the topics he does, he’s guaranteed a level of controversy that raises his profile. For all his faults, he is also a master of structure and the reader hook – melodramatically in many places, which isn’t great – but he does draw the reader on.

  8. This is the scariest part of writing–your work being dissected. Please, don’t read my first novel. I know it’s a disaster. My second one was better–I was certain, until I started editing it again. I sometimes wonder where my brain goes when I start writing.
    Your points are valid. I might no like what you had to say about mine, but I would want to know so I could improve my writing. I want my novels to be accurate, except of course, my sci-fi novel. That one is fantasy and I can do what I like, right?

    • Well, I guess for sci-fi it depends on the extent to which you can sustain the suspension of disbelief via other means. Dr Who is masterful when it comes to such things – the ‘science’ in it is absolute hokum…and who cares? It is so wonderful in every respect. On the other hand, I always hold that stories that attempt to be ‘real’ – set in a ‘real’ future, for instance, need to pay due attention to the science part of the fiction. Usually. (It’s the ‘usually’ that probably counts…) :-)

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