The danger of knowing too much…

I’m catching up on some reading while I’m sick with the flu. I finished reading “The Da Vinci Code”, which was a lot better than I expected. Basically, a mystery novel with a bit of the old conspiracy theory “fantasy” mixed in, combined with what seemed to be impeccable fact finding to provide just the right level of reality.

Now I’m reading another novel by Dan Brown, with the same main character, Robert Langdon. This one is called “Angels & Demons”, and up until the point I am now in the book, it promised to be as compelling and intriguing as The Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately, I know just a bit too much about one of the key plot devices in the book.

Basically, the story revolves around creation of a large volume (a tenth of a gram or so) of stable anti-matter by CERN, and the theft and use of a cannister containing that anti-matter sample. The cannister has its own battery backup to maintain the magnetic fields necessary to hold the anti-matter in isolation within the vacuum of the container. This is an interesting premise: anti-matter holds the promise of being a 100% efficient way of converting mass to energy- in comparison, fission is only about 1% efficient. A couple tenths of a gram of antimatter could produce an explosion measured in kilotons…and the time is ticking on the battery backup of the canister.

So far, so good. But then the folks who stole the cannister put it in major site (I won’t entirely spoil the story by saying where) and point a wireless networked camera at it. At the point I am in the story, the plot surrounds the protagonists trying to find the device. Here are my problems with the story at this point:

  • apparently, for hard to fathom reasons, the cannister and its battery are made of non-metallic materials so they can’t be detected by metal detectors. I can not imagine why CERN would do this- it would take some serious effort to create a cannister that can maintain an absolute vacuum, generate powerful enough magnetic fields to isolate antimatter, and run on internal battery power even *with* metallics. There isn’t any practical reason I can think of not to use metal, and none is given
  • to find the cannister, one of the protagonists suggested turning off all the power in the target area and searching for the magnetic field used by the cannister to isolate the anti-matter. Another main character said this would be difficult…I can’t argue with that, since I’m no specialist on magnetic fields. But I am pretty familiar with wireless networks used by things like security cameras. This thing is being monitored by a wireless security camera, part of the sites own network, that has been removed from its normal location and placed to show the containment cannister. How about turning off all the other wireless devices (don’t even need to turn off the power) and use a high-end wireless sniffer? Since the camera is transmitting, it must be sending a signal. The signal is a known quantity- relatively easy to triangulate.

Now, this story still contains all the elements of a good mystery, including good characters and a meticulous details regarding the settings that shows a lot of good research. But because of a couple of weak scientific/technical factors that I know a little bit about and the author obviously didn’t research very well, the “magic” of the story is disrupted.

This is one of those times that I sort of wish I didn’t know some of the junk I know …

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