An ocean away, Iranians chew over election

“It shocked all of us because we were so hopeful,” said Pouya Alagheband, describing the moment he first heard that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected president of Iran. The engineering grad student and board member of the Iranian Association at the University of Toronto was part of a group of about 280 Iranian students who travelled to Ottawa to vote in the now-disputed June 12 elections.

Ahmedinejad’s victory is considered suspect by many who believe the announcement was too soon for votes to have been properly counted and that rival candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi was more popular. Mass protests have faced harsh crackdown by government forces, with debated numbers of civilian casualties and an estimated 200 protestors imprisoned.

In Toronto’s Iranian community, international students and homegrown Iranian-Canadians have the daunting task of determining what the diaspora can do to make a difference in Iran. Before the uprising, many of those eligible chose to boycott the election in objection to what they view as a corrupt system. At a panel discussion at OISE on June 28, student leaders and activists gathered to discuss the issues raised by the election.

Mahdi Takaffoli, a doctoral candidate at Ryerson University, said the boycott is not a “political solution.” Though the system is far from perfect, he said, the path to change is through electing progressive leaders like Mousavi. Takaffoli said that if people had not voted and been invested in the election, the current uprising would not have happened. “I do not like the experience of revolution,” he said, adding that violence is not justified by political ideals.

Donya Ziaee, whose Master’s thesis at York University examined gender and labour in post-revolutionary Iran, didn’t vote but didn’t boycott the election either. “As a personal choice, I chose not to vote. I didn’t feel that any of the candidates offered anything that was significantly progressive,” she said.

Though Ziaee can see why many support Mousavi over the other candidates, she is critical of his politics and his “utter inability” to reach out to grassroots movements. “We see a movement that claims to be political and yet fails to mention many different dimensions within itself: the gender dimension, the class dimension, the ethnic dimension. These have all been banished from our discussions.”

Reza, a PhD student in molecular biology who did not want to divulge his last name, agreed that the uprising is not just about the election, though it was a significant trigger. “Many forces are merging behind Mousavi now because they see the opportunity to form a stronger opposition. The youth in Iran want more freedom in choosing their way of life and expressing their beliefs. Women in Iran have been asking for equal rights with men for a long time.”

Despite their diverging opinions, all interviewed in this article condemned the violent crackdown on political protestors. As York doctoral student Salah Hassanpour put it, “Any member of any type of armed forces established by the Islamic Republic who has so much as laid a hand on a single person, in our eyes, is already and without question guilty of crimes against humanity.”

With translation by Arash Azizi

The Girlfriend Experience

Considering that Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, The Girlfriend Experience, is about a call girl and features former porn star Sasha Grey, it’s interesting and admirable that the film should be all talk and no sex. Although Grey is a brick wall dramatically, The Girlfriend Experience is still a clever meditation on how people sacrifice their self-respect and lie to themselves to varying degrees. Although it’s a conversation film, it isn’t a visually dull. Peter Andrews’ camera work brings something new and refreshing to each scene to keep the viewer engaged in the conversations.

Chelsea is a young, upscale, sophisticated call girl in New York City, giving her rich and pathetic clients what she calls the “girlfriend experience.” Chelsea is the kind of girl you can take to fancy restaurants, movie theatres, or to meet with friends. By doing regular date- like activities with her clients in addition to providing sexual services, she maintains an illusion of an emotional exchange with these men.

However, Chelsea is not a sophisticated woman. Her limited vocabulary and childish speech, including her overuse of the word “like,” reveal her lack of culture and education. But so long as she looks pretty and plays the part that she thinks her clients want (or even need), everyone remains satisfied. Chelsea, the pretty prostitute, attends to their insecurities and allows them to bathe in narcissism while talking about themselves, their wives, and their children.

Chelsea’s boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos) provides an interesting professional juxtaposition. Soderbergh likens Chris’ transactions as a personal trainer to prostitution, as he too must sell his smiles to get ahead. However, Chelsea is no heroine herself: though her job makes her feel essential, it comes at a cost to her self-respect.

Her personality is as constructed as her appearance, and it’s unclear from the film whether she is ever truly herself. The only hint of this is in her last sexual encounter, which is raw and clearly portrays Chelsea as being used. At this point, there’s no longer anything behind which she can hide.


Colombian free-trade agreement: making a bad situation worse

When Canada’s Parliament reconvenes for its fall sitting, one of the items expected to feature prominently on the legislative agenda is the implementation of the Canada-Colombia Free-Trade Agreement. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s right-wing government has mounted a concerted lobbying campaign in Canada to pass Bill C-23 in the hopes of parlaying the ensuing diplomatic capital into an eventual accord with the United States. Congress had already rejected a free-trade deal with Uribe’s government in 2007, citing Colombia’s poor human rights record.

Recently however, Uribe has made his case directly to Barack Obama. In what appeared to be a dramatic reversal of his position when he was a Senator, President Obama spoke glowingly of Uribe’s administration at the follow-up press conference, and expressed support for a U.S.-Colombia free-trade deal.

It was beginning to look unlikely that the deal would happen here in Canada, as the previously undecided Liberals hinted at joining the NDP and Bloc in opposition to Conservative plans to see it through. But Obama’s blessing will likely affect the bill’s implementation.

A Liberal reversal now would be a bitter pill for Canadian civil society and international NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Crisis Group. They have all come out against free trade agreements with Colombia, claiming these deals would probably end up worsening an already terrible situation in the South American country.

When asked about President Obama’s statement that there was “great progress” in Colombia, Beth Berton-Hunter of Amnesty International Canada told The Varsity that while “[Obama] is very good at presenting a positive case, he doesn’t have the evidence to prove it.”

“We [had] four groups of Colombians represented here,” Berton-Hunter said at an Amnesty event at Harbourfront on July 1. “They felt that there was no way Colombians would be better off under free-trade.”

The UN, too, has weighed in—the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay argued that the government and military have committed crimes against humanity. Her comments followed a major scandal late last year, when it was revealed that Colombian security forces were killing civilians, many of them children and teenagers, and dressing the bodies as rebels in order to inflate the government’s numbers of guerrillas killed in the country’s ongoing internal conflict.

The government responded to the “false positive” scandal, as it has become known, by firing 27 officers, including three generals, and disbanding a brigade.

But the atrocities have continued, leaving many wondering about the extent of the government’s involvement in extrajudicial killings. The UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings, who concluded a fact-finding mission to Colombia on June 18, noted in a preliminary press release that “[extrajudicial] killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.”

The number of unionists killed by government and paramilitary groups in 2008 increased by 18 per cent from the year before, and is on course to continue rising in 2009. Suspicion that the Uribe government had prior knowledge of these murders was heightened in late May by the resignation of Colombia’s former ambassador to Canada and CCFTA negotiator, Senator Jorge Visbal Martelo, as a result of his ties to paramilitary groups.

With over 380,000 Colombians being forced to flee from their homes last year alone, the number of internally displaced people in the country is second to only to that of Sudan.

Implementation legislation for the CCFTA was stalled after the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade released a report in June of last year recommending that Canada first undertake an independent assessment of the impact of a free-trade deal on human rights in Colombia.

Canadian NGOs have been front-and-centre of the debate. As the numbers of internally displaced people, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances continued to grow last year, civil society organizations like the Canadian Council for International Cooperation have warned that the CCFTA could very plausibly exacerbate these problems. In a CCIC report entitled Making A Bad Situation Worse, Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives notes that much of the paramilitary violence is in resource-rich areas where Canadian oil and mining companies are active. While the CCFTA would give these investors—whose interests are intertwined with the paramilitary groups that are responsible for the massacres—broad and directly enforceable investment rights, it would not institute countervailing legal safeguards to protect the millions of Colombians living in terror, and would even hamper Colombia’s ability to introduce such measures in the future.

After a series of disastrous foreign policy blunders in recent years, it appeared as if Canada would get this one right. Michael Ignatieff began saying publicly that the Liberals needed an independent assessment of the deal before giving it the go-ahead. President Obama’s praises for Uribe’s “diligence” and “courage,” his statement that “the burden is not simply on Colombia” but also somehow on Congress, and his emphasis on Uribe’s high approval rating—with no mention of how that rating was brutally achieved—could very conceivably cause the Liberals to reverse course and side with the Conservatives later this year and pass Bill C-23.

While Obama’s change of tone is deeply disappointing for those of us who hoped that he would make human rights a centrepiece of U.S.-Colombia relations, Canada does not have to go down the same road. If the Liberals manage to hold their ground on this issue, refusing to use Obama’s endorsement of Uribe as political cover to pass the CCFTA, Canadians will be able to say, on the Colombian issue at least, we were able to find a more humane footing than our neighbours to the south.

Sarkozy blasts burkas

Publicly saying anything that comes to one’s mind while hiding behind the facade of freedom from oppression is a sign of ignorance, and can become a new means of oppression in itself. This was the case on June 21 when French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the burka, a common headscarf worn by Muslim women. Sarkozy stated that the wearing of the burka is not an expression of religious freedom, but rather a practice that reduces women to subservitude. What defines a certain people has wrongly become stigmatized as a form of abuse.

French policies banning the burka were initially restricted to educational and government organizations; every citizen was expected to leave their modes of religious expression outside these institutions in order to maintain secularism within the organs of the state.

But today, the situation has taken a different turn altogether. Sarkozy wants to “free the women in burkas and provide them with an identity.” How many of these women he encountered personally before making this assessment is a question that will remain unanswered. Moreover, he does not seem to realize that the vast majority of these women choose to remain veiled, and want to associate themselves with a Muslim identity as well as a French one. Thus by making such remarks, and by planning on implementing consequential policies, the president is in fact stripping these women of the right to self-identification and individuality.
The true definition of secularism is the separation of state and religion. It means that no state has the right to enforce religious laws or hold prejudices for or against any religious background. It does not, however, mean that citizens cannot practice their own religion privately. A Muslim woman wearing a veil or a Jewish man wearing a kippah are no different from other French people. They are just French Muslims or French Jews. They are free to practice their religion as they please and express themselves how they wish, while living in a country that claims to be a true democracy.

Impeding religious practices, however, is a serious violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” It’s also contradictory to France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which states that the law can only prohibit actions detrimental to society as a whole. I fail to see how wearing a veil in France harms French society.

But the main concern here is not secularism. The problem is the confusion of the term secularism with uniformism. Sarkozy has not only muddled the two, but has pushed the dialogue to an extreme. It will not be too long until people will legally be forced to alter the color of their skin, their height, and their names to conform to French norms. Sarkozy’s use of the word freedom, in essence, is a mutilation of the idea. People should be free under their own terms and conditions.

The beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic

Going back and forth between Iran and other countries for several years, I thought I surely knew everything there is to know about missing one’s country of origin, and longing to be there while living afar. I was wrong.

The massive revolution beginning in Iran has filled me with a lot of different feelings, all stemming from the fact that I’m thousands of miles away. This is nothing less than painful.

For years, I and many others spoke of a revolution that was bound to happen given the situation and conditions of Iranian society.

Such dreams often elicited counter arguments like: revolutions are things of the past, Iranian people have all bought Ahmadinejad populism and love him, and having an Islamic Republic is part and parcel of Iranian culture. I was reminded, time and again, of “cultural relativism.”

Consequently, those of us who opposed the Islamic Republic, who argued that the vast majority of Iranians want this regime to go, and that Iranians would eventually come out en masse against it, were vilified as wishful thinkers at best, and outsiders at worst.

The recent events sparked by the June 12 elections have put Iran into the headlines of the world news, and have brushed off all those assumptions about Iranian society. As has been demonstrated under the watchful eye of the entire world, Iranian people want nothing to do with the likes of Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and their rotten regime. Even when the reformist leaders asked the people to stay home, they did not listen.

The protests are not only a movement against electoral fraud, nor rallies merely for Mir Hossein Mousavi. Iranians rallied behind the opposition leader to further pry the ever-widening split between wings of the current regime’s ruling clique. The aim: to be rid of them all, eventually.

As with every other oppressive regime, there was a split in the ruling clique over how to go forward. One wing of reformists gathered around candidates like Mousavi and Karoubi who wanted to loosen the government’s grip on the people, arguing that citizens would stand against the entire regime if it remained oppressive. The other wing, gathered around supreme leader Ayatolla Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, argued that this opening up would only invite more aggression from people demanding more and more freedom. Both wings were right. It was the insolvable dead-end of the Islamic Republic.

In the 10th presidential elections, people who were fed-up with life under the Islamic Republic and Ahmadinejad voted for Mousavi for the reasons stated above. With their ever-present pragmatism, they wanted to open the space for more struggles and protests in the coming period. But Khamenei and Ahmadinejad knew they couldn’t afford this. They staged a de facto coup d’état and declared Ahmadinejad the winner with a ridiculously high margin of 11 million votes, showing their power to the reformist wing and letting them know who’s really in charge. What they had underestimated however, was the popular response.

June 15 saw people from all over Iran pouring into the streets. Up to two million people marched in central Tehran, with similar incidents in all major cities. Across the country, up to 5 million people took part in this extraordinary show of defiance unrivalled in Iran since the 1979 revolution. The uprising has continued despite the unwillingness of reformist leaders to lead the masses, and in the face of brutal repression by police and armed forces.

It’s not hard to see that this is the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic. This regime, which has been doomed for about a decade, faces an all-out political, economic, administrative, and diplomatic dead-end. It will fall, sooner or later. How Iran’s history is to unfold after depends on the massive struggle of social forces in the young Iranian Revolution. One thing is certain: there is no room now for a return to the old Iranian order. Nothing will be same in Iran again.

A diagnostic revolution in the works

If you show symptoms of strep throat, your doctor will swab your throat, send the sample to a lab to culture the bacteria, and wait for the results before writing a prescription. The day when a sick person can self-administer a blood sample and receive a diagnosis in minutes will see patients receiving treatment faster and clinical costs cut dramatically. That day may be within reach thanks to Dr. Shana Kelley, a professor in U of T’s faculties of pharmacy and medicine.

The Kelley lab is developing nanotechnology that could diagnose early stage cancer and other infectious diseases ten times earlier and at a fraction of the cost than is current clinical practice. Their project consists of an electronic chip the size of a dime containing complementary genetic material, or the appropriate antibodies, that could generate an electronic readout to inform doctors of a patient’s immediate health.

DNA and RNA are composed of nucleotide bases, adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). Complementary base pairing occurs in double-stranded DNA helices between A and T and C and G, and mismatched, absent or damaged nucleotides can result in genetic mutations.

Kelley has been acknowledged as a frontier scientist worldwide in MIT’s Technology Review Top 100 Inventors, named an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow for her promising research career, and awarded the prestigious Pittsburgh Conference Achievement Award for “significant contributions to electrochemical biomolecular detection” in 2007. In 2008 she was named among Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 by Caldwell Partners. Last month The Varsity sat down with Dr. Kelley to discuss her new technology and whether it could revolutionize health care delivery.

The Varsity: What happens in cases where there is mutation of the genetic code in viruses or bacteria you are testing?

Shana Kelley: That’s a tricky thing to deal with. The solution is to look at many possibilities at one time. This is called multiplexing. Currently, we can look at 42 different sequences. If you have a virus you suspect can mutate in 42 different ways, you would be able to test them all. We could easily do 400 sequences by adjusting the patterning on the chip.

TV: To make this applicable for use in hospitals, will the industry need to synthesize different combinations of sequences for different diseases?

SK: Yes. Currently we’re developing this technology in my lab. The next step would be a very small company that would develop the technology further and eventually get it out to hospitals. It needs to be packaged into an instrument, something that a hospital worker can use very easily.

TV: How soon do you think this would be available to the public?

SK: Realistically, we have another year’s work to do to make sure our chips are sensitive enough and instrumentation easy to use. We’re hopeful that within that year we would transfer the technology into a company, and it would take another year to get the product to market. Ideally, we’re maybe two years away from getting something close to clinical use. My lab has been working on this stuff since 2000, and now we are in the final stretch of making it practical.

TV: What about the accuracy? Are there chances for false positives, where a test indicates a positive result that doesn’t actually exist?

SK: There’s always chances for false positives, false negatives even. Another reason multiplexing is so useful is that you are building controls right under your chip. You would put some sequences on there that shouldn’t be binding to anything in your sample, and if they are, you know that there is something wrong somewhere so you would put that test aside and do it again. It’s a similar concept with false negatives.

TV: The government would probably save a lot of money with patients occupying fewer beds for less time. Is the government funding this project, as well as private companies?

SK: Absolutely. We have funding from CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research), NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada), OICR (Ontario Institute of Cancer Research), OCE (Ontario Centre for Excellence), and Genome Canada. Many agencies have been very generous and recognize the value of this in terms of the impact on quality of treatment and also in terms of the economics of the health care system.

TV: What led you to study nanotechnology?

SK: I was educated with a very interdisciplinary approach, where you think of an interesting problem and go out and learn about all the methods that you can use to solve it. As a graduate student, what I became interested in and remained interested in was developing new tools for clinical diagnostics. I knew a lot about prior efforts and why they failed, and what were really needed were new kinds of materials to serve as platforms for clinical diagnostics. It turned out that nanomaterials, which are the size of biological molecules, have a significant advantage as sensors. You can start to think about matching the size of your sensing element to the size of the thing you are looking for. It makes it a little bit less like looking for a needle in a haystack.

TV: Do you see yourself continuing to work with nanotechnology after the completion of this project?

SK: Sure. We’ve just written some proposals for using this type of technology for tuberculosis. It’s a huge problem in the developing world, as it’s very difficult to diagnose people in remote areas. The kind of instrumentation that we envision are chips that don’t require a lot of power. It can be very small because it doesn’t take much to read out the signals from these chips. That’s a whole new area for us. If you think outside the box and what challenges [doctors] face, we’ll always be finding new problems to solve [and] new application areas that will keep pushing us to do better science.

TV: How would you transfer information onto the chip in countries without the resources or laboratories ready to analyze the samples?

SK: We would basically have a unit the size of a blackberry. It would have one of the chips in it with an injection port for the sample. There would also be components embedded in there to burst open the bacteria, for example, and a readout would be shown to the person doing the test indicating the diagnosis. There is going to be a lot of difficult engineering going into making the device, but we know that we can do it based on the parameters. This could have a huge impact on a very large number of people.

TV: How long would the readout take?

SK: I think we can push it to give us a readout in a few minutes. We have seen that in experiments in our lab and we think that can be done with clinical samples as well.

TV: So the whole idea could apply to people at home, instead of going over to the hospital and spending time in the emergency room?

SK: Exactly. We may get there someday.

TV: Do you believe this a revolution?

SK: I think so. We now live in an era where we know the sequence of the human genome, we know about most of the proteins that operate in human cells, we know what genes predispose people to cancer, we know what the markers are. We just need the technology to be able to analyze them. If we can find that technology and adapt it in the right way, it could be a revolution. It would make clinical medicine very different to have access to the kinds of tools we are talking about.

Student unions donate to protestor’s legal fund

University of Toronto Students’ Union president Sandy Hudson has appealed to GTA student unions for donations to an UTSU-created legal fund for Angela Regnier, its executive director.

Regnier was arrested during the May 10 Tamil protest that occupied the Gardiner Expressway for six hours. The protest made international headlines for both police brutality and the presence of women and children on the frontline of the blockade.

According to Hudson, Regnier was peacefully demonstrating, as was York University student Terrence Luscombe. Hudson alleges that the two non-Tamil individuals, who arrived long after the expressway was blocked and police had arrived, were targeted by the police.

Regnier was “faceplanted into the highway” before she and Luscombe were arrested on charges of mischief interference with property.

“These were clearly random arrests,” Hudson said in an email to The Varsity, adding that the two were not organizers. “It is important to stand up for these matters because it is clear by this example that anyone can be randomly targeted and arrested at any demonstration.”

Regnier appeared in court at Old City Hall on June 11 and 25. According to Hudson, Regnier is still awaiting for the crown to disclose evidence against her.

“While this matter is still in the courts, I have been advised by legal counsel against making any comment to the media,” said Regnier in an email. “It could potentially prejudice or compromise my case. Therefore, I will not be available for comment until there has been resolution to this matter.”

Hudson said the legal defence fund was established as part of a previous UTSU board decision to support the Tamil community throughout the crisis. As of print time, it is unclear whether or not Regnier was representing UTSU at the protest.

Hudson said a similar fund for both activists has been established at the Ontario Public Interest Research Group at York University. The group could not be reached for comment.

Asked how much money the legal fund has accrued, Hudson said she was “not currently able to disclose an accurate account of that information.” She added that donors did not consent to having their names published. Hudson also did not name the organizations that were contacted.

The Varsity sent emails to every GTA post-secondary institution. On June 17, UTM Student Union made a donation of $1,000 to Regnier after a heated debate. According to U of T Graduate Students’ Union external commissioner Sara Suliman, GSU has made $500 available to Regnier and will donate based on her legal costs. Ryerson Students’ Union gave $100 and the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson gave $500. U of T’s Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students and Scarborough Campus Students’ Union have received the appeal and have not yet made decisions.

Many college student unions said they did not receive the appeal. Ercole Perrone, executive director of the Humber Students’ Federation, said his federation “doesn’t believe it is appropriate to get involved in the legal matters of another student organization.”

Regnier is not a student. She is a full-time UTSU employee who was hired shortly after ending her term as national deputy chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. The Medium, a UTM student paper, says her legal costs could amount to over $10,000 if the case goes to trial.

Regnier declined to disclose her salary. All full-time undergraduates at St. George and UTM pay UTSU $16.02 per session.

A Facebook group called “Tamil Solidarity Legal Defence Campaign” has been established by the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War and has over 500 members. The group hosted a June 20 fundraiser, inviting active members of union movements and CFS organizations.

A Maclean’s blog asked readers to debate the legitimacy of contributing to the legal fund. Some say the case is a matter of free speech while others denounce it as union leaders using student money to help their friends.

Hudson said it is common for labour and union movements to establish and support legal defence funds. For example, the University of Guelph Central Students’ Association has a legal defence fund for activists pursuing the indigenous land rights issue in Caledonia. UTSU has contributed to the fund set up by OPIRG Toronto for the Fight Fees 14, who staged a sit-in at Simcoe Hall last year.

Exploring antimatters in fiction

Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons recently made its way onto the silver screen, and has drawn massive audiences due to the overwhelming popularity of the book, as well as the film’s star-studded cast. However, few may stop to consider the principles of physics behind the story. Enter Scott Menary of York’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Menary is one of several Canadian and American particle physicists who are giving free public-friendly lectures at universities across the continent to elucidate the science behind Angels and Demons. Although many of the principles in the film are extremely complex concepts in theoretical physics, in his lecture at York’s Accolade West Hall in late May, Professor Menary managed to make the Higgs Boson and antimatter accessible to even a science-illiterate audience.

In Angels and Demons, Harvard Symbologist Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks) is called to CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) to examine the symbol on the chest of a dead physicist, only to discover that a group of scientists called the “IIluminati” has resurfaced to seek vengeance upon their archenemy, the Catholic Church. Langdon discovers the Illuminati have plotted to destroy the Vatican using antimatter they have stolen from CERN.

CERN, Professor Menary explained, is the world’s largest research laboratory for particle physics and houses the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator 100 metres underground. By accelerating and smashing protons along a 27-kilometre track, scientists are able to better understand the laws of nature while attempting to recreate the conditions that existed when the Big Bang occurred. Upon generating these conditions, scientists hope to discover the nature of mass as defined by the Standard Model of particle physics.

The Standard Model is a theory that accounts for all of the forces in the universe, except gravity, and stipulates that particles produced in the Big Bang did not have mass. According to the Standard Model, particles acquire their mass by moving through space and by interacting with a specific particle, which endows each of the other particles with mass. This unseen molecule, which occupies all of space, was named the “Higgs Boson”—or the “God particle” as it is referred to in Angels and Demons. Menary mentioned that the “Higgs Boson is the lynchpin of the standard model; something like it has to exist or the entire system is wrong.” Essentially, if the particles in the Big Bang were created without mass, there must be something out there that gave them mass.

In addition to possibly producing the Higgs Boson particles, physicists at CERN are producing antimatter particles, such as those believed to have formed during the Big Bang. Antimatter particles are identical in mass but opposite in charge to physical matter.

The Big Bang hypothesis posits that at the moment the universe was created, particles and antiparticles existed in equal amounts. However, one second after this moment of creation, the antimatter, as well as most matter, completely disappeared and only a small amount of matter was left to create the stars, the galaxies, and planet Earth.

Antimatter does not exist on earth—it needs to be produced at CERN in the Large Hadron Collider through a process of extremely high energy particle collisions. Antiparticles annihilate when they collide with particles. In order to trap them, the antiparticles need to be decelerated from 96 per cent to 10 per cent of the speed of light. They also need to be stored in a “Penning Trap Ultrahigh Vacuum” so that they do not come into contact with matter. In very simple terms, if antimatter were to interact with matter in real life, an explosion would occur.

In Angels and Demons, one gram of antimatter is expected to destroy the Vatican once released from the Penning Trap. Even though one gram of antimatter could in fact destroy the Vatican (it could even destroy all of Rome and the surrounding area), it is unrealistic for Brown to claim that the production of this one gram is even possible. CERN is only capable of producing one billionth of a gram of antimatter per year. It would take one billion years to produce just one gram of antimatter!

Although Dan Brown may not have used particle physics principles with complete accuracy in his book, Dr. Menary explained that this invisible, destructive molecule does in fact exist, and it’s simply a matter of separating fact from fiction.