Apocalyptic Vatican City

Dear Evil Engineer: Could I hold Vatican City hostage with an antimatter weapon?

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A villain pursuing her lifelong desire to become an absolute monarch turns to the fiction shelf for inspiration.

Dear Evil Engineer,

Since childhood, I’ve wanted to become an absolute monarch like the villains I looked to as role models: Ivan the Terrible, Gaius Caligula, Vlad the Impaler and Emperor Palpatine. There are few absolute monarchies remaining in the world, and once you exclude those based in countries too hot for one accustomed to British weather, only Eswatini and Vatican City are left. I thought Eswatini was an app, so Vatican City it is. It’s small, yes, but it’s covered in gold, has an unbeatable Raphael per capita ratio, and I already speak a little Italian. Dove sono i bagni?

Unfortunately, women are not allowed to become Pope. Dannazione! I plan to take the puny city state hostage and threaten to annihilate it with an antimatter bomb unless I am immediately instated as Pope (Dan Brown is indeed my favourite author). How much antimatter will I need to get cracking?

A socially ambitious villain


Dear villain,

Is there anyone in our community whose favourite author is not Dan Brown? The International Academy of Evil and Incompetence didn’t honour him with the Crimes Against Humanities Award 2001 for nothing! For any readers who are sadly unfamiliar with Mr Brown’s superb novel ‘Angels & Demons’, let me explain that it revolves around the Illuminati stealing a canister of antimatter from CERN and hiding it somewhere in Vatican City with a 24-hour countdown to annihilation.

Antimatter is made of the antiparticle partners of matter particles (same mass and opposite charge); for instance, a positron is the antimatter partner of an electron. Why the universe as we know it is composed almost entirely of ordinary matter – rather than half matter and half antimatter – remains a great scientific mystery.

A collision between a particle and its antiparticle partner causes annihilation, in which the entirety of their mass is released as pure energy. Hypothetically, there is incredible potential for weaponisation (for comparison, the most advanced fusion weapons have a maximum of around 1 per cent mass-to-energy conversion).

Using the famous mass-energy equivalence relationship, 1g of antimatter released into our world (annihilating with 1g of matter) would produce 1.8x1014J of energy. That’s 43 kilotons of TNT equivalent, or around the magnitude of the Little Boy atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima. Popping in some ballpark figures regarding the comparative destruction potential necessary, you would need around 0.03g of antimatter to credibly threaten Vatican City. That doesn’t sound like much, and compared with other weapons it’s not – but every antiparticle is an ordeal.

The cost of creating an antimatter weapon is prohibitive. Antimatter frequently tops lists of the most expensive substances, reaching estimates of trillions of dollars per gram. At present, nanograms of the stuff is created each year at facilities owned by the likes of CERN. While production rates increased geometrically for several decades, rates have stalled as scientists reach the limits of what existing technology can do within the laws of physics. Even at the most optimistic production rates, creating 0.03g of antimatter would take so long that human civilisation may not exist by the time the process is finished. No macroscopic amount of antimatter has ever been synthesised on Earth.

However, let’s try to use our imaginations (though ours could never compare with that New York Times bestselling author and philanthropist Dan Brown) and pretend we’ve found 0.03g of antimatter down the back of the sofa. The next concern is storing it – that is, keeping it from contact with ordinary matter – until the time comes to detonate the weapon. This is not impossible; do-gooder scientists have got rather good at containing unusual states of matter. CERN stores a few antiparticles at a time in a Penning trap. This uses a strong magnetic field to confine supercooled antiparticles radially, so for instance, the antiparticles would travel around a toroid vacuum chamber, remaining the same distance from the walls.

The physics is fine; the problems are – as ever – with engineering and economics. Antimatter makes for the opposite of a failsafe weapon. The system must be kept under perfect control: a collision with leaked air, the presence of an external magnetic field, or the smallest bit of heating or shaking will cause immediate annihilation. Such a container would also be extremely expensive to build and maintain; they are notorious power guzzlers and one big enough to contain 0.03g of antimatter would be... let’s just say it’d be so big that if you built one, you’d be better off trying to get it recognised as a state by the UN and naming yourself absolute monarch than you would bothering with Vatican City. CERN has said that creating and storing antimatter is so inefficient that just one-tenth of one-billionth of the input energy is released through annihilation.

I’m sorry to pour cold water on your ‘Angels & Demons’-inspired evil plan, but it’s currently infeasible given the vast resources necessary to synthesise and stabilise antimatter. Really, it’s a credit to Dan Brown’s sparkling prose that the scientific (and linguistic, geographical, architectural, religious, and historical) inaccuracies do not detract from the pleasure of reading this bestselling mystery-thriller masterpiece of literary
nous unrivalled in the 21st century.

Go for TNT, fission, or fusion weapons – and begin your reign with a reputation for economy. Alternatively, you could try mounting a campaign to abolish the ‘men only’ rule for the Papacy, though don’t tell anyone – it probably violates your oath as a chartered villain.

The Evil Engineer

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