Lies, Damned Lies and Dan Brown: Fact-checking Angels & Demons

Note: This essay includes material that previously appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic World Report.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Quick, how did Copernicus die?

Dan Brown readers “know” the answer: “Outspoken scientists like Copernicus” were “murdered by the church for revealing scientific truths,” according to a tag-team history lesson by Harvard “symbolist” Robert Langdon and CERN director Maximilian Kohler in Angels & Demons, the predecessor to Brown’s blockbuster sequel, The Da Vinci Code.

On May 15, the new Ron Howard adaptation of Angels & Demons — reworked as a sequel rather than a prequel to Howard’s 2006 smash The Da Vinci Code — will bring another installment of the Dan Brown version of history to millions of moviegoers. While the new film doesn’t repeat the specific charge of the murder of Copernicus, it maintains the larger historical context set forth in Brown’s Angels & Demons: the Church’s murderous persecution of science, especially in the Illuminati, a secret society that Brown claims counted Copernicus, Galileo and Bernini among its members.

Here’s how Tom Hanks’s Langdon describes the relevant history in an exchange with Vatican police head Ernesto Olivetti: “The Illuminati … were physicists, mathematicians, astronomers. In the 1500s they started meeting in secret because they were concerned about the Church’s inaccurate teachings, and they were dedicated to scientific truth. And the Vatican didn’t like that. So the Church began to … hunt them down and kill them.” In another clip Langdon puts it even more succinctly: “The Illuminati were a secret society dedicated to scientific truth. The Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence them forever.”

Specifically, Langdon cites a supposedly historical incident he calls “La Purga.” In the film version, Langdon upbraids Swiss Guard head Commander Richter for his historical ignorance: “Geez, you guys don’t even read your own history, do you? 1668, the church kidnapped four Illuminati scientists and branded each one of them on the chest with the symbol of the cross, to purge them of their sins. And they executed them, threw their bodies in the street as a warning to others to stop questioning church ruling on scientific matters. They radicalized them. The Purga created a darker, more violent Illuminati, one bent on … on retribution.”

The specifics — Copernicus, the year in which La Purga took place — create an aura of facticity taken seriously by many fans of Brown’s yarns. Although his defenders sometimes demur that Angels & Demons, as well as The Da Vinci Code, is “just fiction,” Brown has never wavered in insisting on the solid factual basis for his stories — and many of his more credulous fans have no idea just how much he routinely gets wrong.

In a Q&A billed as an “interview” on his own website, Brown writes (in a comment recently highlighted by Carl Olson in This Rock), “My goal is always to make the character’s [sic] and plot be so engaging that readers don’t realize how much they are learning along the way.” Or how much misinformation they’re absorbing.

Art and architecture

In particular, Brown claims that his narrative use of works of art and architecture is “entirely factual”: “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations),” he writes in an author’s note in Angels & Demons, adding, somewhat ungrammatically, “The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.” (Statements may be “factual” or not; an institution or entity may or may not be historical, or accurately depicted — and Brown’s Illuminati manifestly isn’t — but in any case it can’t be “factual.”)

For years, Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians with a low threshold for rampant disinformation have labored to set the record straight on countless points muddied in the book and movie versions of Brown’s tales. Brown’s inaccuracies start with the very point on which he claims strictest reliability: works of art and architecture — and their “exact locations.”

For instance, Brown locates Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome at Piazza Barberini, a half mile from its real location. He puts Santa Maria del Popolo at the southeast corner of the piazza, though it’s actually on the north side, and describes Langdon looking up at its “rose window,” though the church’s circular window lacks the stone mullions and traceries of a rose window.

Brown also identifies Santa Maria del Popolo as a “cathedral.” Later he has Langdon straining to “see a spire or cathedral tower jutting up over the obstacles.” Possibly Brown doesn’t know what a cathedral is. There is only one cathedral in any diocese, the church that is the seat (cathedra) of the local bishop. (The bishop of Rome is, of course, the pope. His cathedral church is the Basilica of St. John Lateran.)

Brown says that the rivers represented by Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain represent “the four major rivers of the Old World — The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata,” though the Rio de la Plata, an estuary on the border of Argentina and Uruguay, belongs to the New World, the four rivers being chosen to represent the four continents of Renaissance cartography (Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas).

Brown’s claim of accuracy regarding “tombs” is equally false. Angels & Demons claims that a plaque in the Pantheon indicates that Raphael’s body was only relocated to the Pantheon in 1758, and that he was originally buried in Urbino. No such plaque exists, for the excellent reason that Raphael was buried in the Pantheon from the start. Brown also places the body of Pope Alexander VII, Alexander Chigi, in the Chigi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. In fact, Alexander VII is buried in the tombs of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Brown ascribes to Michelangelo the design of the Swiss Guard uniforms and the spiral staircase leading to the Vatican Museums, which he incorrectly calls the Musèo Vaticano rather than the Musei Vaticani. In fact it appears that Michelangelo was not involved in the design of the Swiss Guard uniforms, and certainly had nothing to do with the spiral staircase of the Vatican museums, which is of 20th-century origin, designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. Among the treasures housed within the Vatican museums, Brown lists St. Peter’s Basilica, a separate structure.

These are fairly incidental (if often glaring) errors. More problematic is a key reference to a tile in the pavement of St. Peter’s Square, the “West/Ponente” tile. The tile depicts the west wind personified as a classical godlike head blowing from the west.

Brown presents the “West/Ponente” tile as an all-important clue left by Gianlorenzo Bernini, who designed St. Peter’s Square, supposedly pointing the way to the next location in the book’s scavenger hunt. Brown also claims that the use of the English word “West” on the tile represented, in Bernini’s day, a disreputable Anglicism — English in the 1600s being, in Brown’s mythology, “the one language the Vatican had not yet embraced” and “did not control” (whatever that means).

There are a number of problems here. First and most obviously, the “West/Ponente” tile is one of sixteen markers in St. Peter’s Square arrayed in a circle and aligned to the points of the compass, forming a “compass rose” or “wind rose” (rosa dei venti) — i.e., pointing in every direction.

For instance, directly opposite the “West/Ponente” marker is the “E[a]st/Levante” marker — and, if I saw correctly, the new film actually includes a doctored shot of this marker, with the wind/breath lines airbrushed from the image, thereby suggesting that only the “West/Ponente” tile points in a specific direction.

For another thing, the current wind-rose markers aren’t Bernini’s work at all. According to www.StPetersBasilica.org, they were added three centuries later, under Pius IX (and whatever the status of English in Bernini’s day, there was certainly nothing disreputable about it in 1852).

One art-related charge made in both the film and the book is the notion of Pius IX’s “Great Castration” of Vatican City’s male statues in 1857, which supposedly involved the pope taking a mallet to the male organs of every single statue in the Vatican. (In the book, Langdon wonders if the Vatican still has a heap of stone penises somewhere as relics of this systematic vandalism.)

Did it really happen? More pointedly, how many people exposed to the idea will ever find out? (The truth is that fig leaves were added, but the statues were not castrated; rather, subsequent efforts to remove the leaves proved more damaging than leaving them in place.)

Beyond fiction

Brown’s misrepresentation of matters of art and architecture are not confined to the fiction of his novels. Here is how Brown describes how he got the inspiration to write Angels & Demons in a Q&A billed as an “interview” on his website:

I was beneath Vatican City touring a tunnel called il passetto — a concealed passageway used by the early Popes to escape in event of enemy attack. According to the scholar giving the tour, one of the Vatican’s most feared ancient enemies was a secret brotherhood known as the Illuminati — the “enlightened ones” — a cult of early scientists who had vowed revenge against the Vatican for crimes against scientists like Galileo and Copernicus. I was fascinated by images of this cloaked, anti-religious brotherhood lurking in the catacombs of Rome. Then, when the scholar added that many modern historians believe the Illuminati is still active today and is one of most powerful unseen forces in global politics, I knew I was hooked … I had to write an Illuminati thriller.

This biographical anecdote story garbles the fact that the Passetto di Borgo is not a “tunnel” located “beneath Vatican City.” It is an elevated passageway, partly covered and partly open, disguised as a wall running from Vatican City to Castel Sant’Angelo. If Brown had made that mistake in the fictional narrative of the novel, it might be just another blunder, but he says that he toured the Passetto and was even inspired to write the book there. How could Brown make that mistake if he had really toured it as he says?

The credibility of Brown’s anecdote is further eroded by his description of the comments from the (here unnamed) “scholar” giving the tour: a thoroughly unhistorical description of the Illuminati as a “cult of scientists,” one of the Catholic Church’s “most feared ancient enemies,” who had “vowed revenge against the Vatican for crimes against scientists like Galileo and Copernicus.” (Who is this “scholar”? In his acknowledgments Brown thanks “Sylvia Cavazzini” for his tour of the passetto. Whoever “Sylvia Cavazzini” may be, she hasn’t published or otherwise left any scholarly paper trail that I could find; as far as I can tell, Dan Brown’s acknowledgment is the only obvious evidence of her existence anywhere on the Internet. )

This, of course, just happens to touch upon the central premise of Angels & Demons, the meta-narrative around which the action of the novel is constructed: the picture of the Church and science at war with one another. Brown connects this supposedly historical theme to a supposedly biographical event in his own life, implying a credible, “scholarly” basis for it, reinforcing the claim of his author’s note regarding the “factual” nature of the Illuminati.

In fact, the whole premise — much like Brown’s moment of subterranean “inspiration” and possibly the tour, the “scholar” and the history lesson he describes — is almost completely lacking in reality.

Science, the Illuminati and the Church

The historical Illuminati was was not founded in the 1500s, and its membership did not include Copernicus, Galileo or Bernini, all of whom died long before the Illuminati existed (in Copernicus’s case, well over two centuries; in Bernini’s, nearly a century).

The Illuminati was an Enlightenment-era secret society. It was founded in the late eighteenth century, in 1776, the same year as the founding of the United States. Its members were politically minded freethinkers with no particular interest in science.

Although the Illuminati were not friendly toward religion, there were no “vows of revenge” against the Church for “crimes against scientists like Galileo and Copernicus.” On the contrary, one would be hard pressed to come up with any evidence of any ecclesiastical “crimes” committed against Copernicus, and while the Galileo affair is certainly a black mark on church history, his fate (lifelong house arrest) was not the sort of outrage that tends to inspire murderous vows of revenge centuries after the fact.

Copernicus was never at odds with Church authority. A cleric and bishop’s nephew, Copernicus published his six-volume work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres at the urging of the Cardinal Archbishop of Capua, Nikolaus von Schönberg, and dedicated the work to Pope Paul III. Years earlier, Copernicus was invited to advise the Lateran Council, invoked by Leo X, regarding reworking the calendar, and his work informed the Church’s eventual reformation of the calendar. Although his writings proved controversial for a time after his death, the controversy centered on a few passages and isolated words.

Copernicus died at the age of 70, of a stroke. The claim that he was “murdered by the church for revealing scientific truths” is sheer fiction, even libel.

If the larger picture of the Catholic Church’s opposition to science and systematic persecuting scientists like Copernicus — the meta-narrative around which Angels & Demons is constructed — is almost completely without reality, it is also not a mere “product of the author’s imagination.” Just as The Da Vinci Code’s reading of history is drawn from sources like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Angels & Demons exploits a misconception with long roots in American anti-Catholicism: a kind of anti-Catholic master myth celebrated in books like Charles Chiniquy’s 1886 diatribe Fifty Years in the Church of Rome.

Chiniquy’s nineteeth-century polemic claims that Blaise Pascal as well as Copernicus was excommunicated, while Galileo was publicly flogged and sent to a dungeon. None of this is true (Pascal may have had heretical leanings, but never faced excommunication, while Galileo suffered nothing worse than house arrest, and was never flogged, tortured or imprisoned in a dungeon). Nevertheless, even today the picture of the Church systematically persecuting and executing scientists is popularly perceived as having some basis in history.

La Purga is a wholly fictional event (perhaps Richter has read his history after all). There was no murder and branding of four scientists, Illuminati or otherwise, nor did the Church toss bodies in the street as a warning. (The only remotely scientifically minded historical figure I am aware of who was executed by Catholic civil authorities is the sixteenth-century Dominican Giordano Bruno. Although Bruno rejected geocentrism, and proposed that the sun was merely one star like any other, his conviction by the Roman Inquisition appears to have been for sadly typical reasons — heretical beliefs regarding the nature of God, the Trinity, Jesus Christ and other points of fundamental dogma, in keeping with his pantheist worldview — rather than for his ideas about the universe.)

Brown depicts CERN scientists routinely petitioning the Vatican for “apologies for Copernicus and Galileo.” In the case of Copernicus, the only conceivable response would be “For what?” Even Galileo, almost the only shred of fact in the anti-Catholic master myth of the Church’s persecution of scientists, has been both distorted beyond recognition in popular imagination and misrepresented as archetypal rather than exceptional.

Brown exploits and reinforces this misperception, claiming that Galileo was convicted of heresy (in fact the finding was not heresy, but “vehemently suspect of heresy”) and was “almost executed” (nothing of the sort was ever in question) for “daring to imply that God had placed mankind somewhere other than at the center of His universe.” This last implies that the medieval geocentric model was flatteringly anthropocentric; in reality, the medievals saw the earth as the lowest and least glorious location in the universe, the farthest from the heights of Heaven (with hell itself at the very center).

Brown shamelessly transposes a philosophical blind spot affecting Galileo himself to his critics, representing ecclesiastical authorities as insisting that heavenly bodies must move in perfect circular orbits and therefore attacking Galileo for daring to propose elliptical orbits. Actually, it was Galileo himself — not church authorities — who esteemed the perfection of circular orbits, and rejected the notion of elliptically orbiting heavenly bodies. (This wasn’t Galileo’s only mistake, scientific or otherwise. For more, see The Galileo Controversy.)

Although Brown acknowledges that many scientists — including Galileo — were devout believers who saw faith and reason as complementary rather than opposed, he insists that the enlightened attitudes of Galileo and others conflicted with the Church’s claim to be “the sole vessel through which man could understand God” (emphasis in original).

In doing so, Brown blithely ignores the crucial role of Christianity in the origins of modern science as well as the Church’s patronage of the sciences in the time of Copernicus and Galileo. As Dr. Thomas Woods notes, “For the last fifty years, virtually all historians of science — including A. C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, Stanley Jaki, Thomas Goldstein, and J. L. Heilbron — have concluded that the Scientific Revolution was indebted to the Catholic Church” (How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, p. 4).

Not only did Catholic theology provide the theoretical framework for the development of modern science — since the first modern scientists believed that a cosmos ordered by a rational Creator was a cosmos governed by laws comprehensible to the reason of men created in His image — many of the early scientists were priests and religious. Beyond that, the Church itself provided direct monetary and social support to science, particularly astronomy.

Yet Brown claims, in a speech in the mouth of the camerlengo Carlo Ventresca in both the book and the film, that “Since the days of Galileo our church has tried to slow the relentless march of science.” Even educated people today have little notion of the Church’s role in the origin and growth of modern science — and they won’t learn about it from Brown.

Bad science

Although Brown’s treatment of scientific matters falls fairly under the rubric of legitimate science fiction, at least in part, it’s not very smart sci-fi (I would like to have read Michael Crichton’s take on an antimatter bomb), and Brown routinely botches things he could have gotten right without harming his premise.

The basic conceit of an “antimatter bomb” is fair enough sci-fi, even if it is about as scientifically feasible as Star Trek’s transporters and warp drive.

The basic facts are these. Antimatter is real, and it is routinely created in miniscule quantities at laboratories like the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, as Brown describes in Angels & Demons. Anti-particles do annihilate on contact with corresponding particles of normal matter, releasing energy equivalent to the two particles annihilated. In principle, annihilating a very large amount of antimatter at once — a gram, say, as posited in the book — would have the devastating effect Brown describes.

However, Angels & Demons gets a great deal wrong that falls outside the scope of what is required by the story or what can be projected of future science. For example, both the book and the film speak of antimatter as a possible “energy source.” In fact, Brown himself presents this possibility as fact, not just in Angels & Demons, but in a Q&A interview on his website. Here is his response to the question “Is antimatter for real?”

Absolutely. Antimatter is the ultimate energy source. It releases energy with 100% efficiency (nuclear fission is 1.5% efficient.) Antimatter is 100,000 times more powerful than rocket fuel. A single gram contains the energy of a 20 kiloton atomic bomb—the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In addition to being highly explosive, antimatter is extremely unstable and ignites when it comes in contact with anything … even air. It can only be stored by suspending it in an electromagnetic field inside a vacuum canister. If the field fails and the antimatter falls, the result is a “perfect” matter/antimatter conversion, which physicists aptly call “annihilation.” CERN is now regularly producing small quantities of antimatter in their research for future energy sources. Antimatter holds tremendous promise; it creates no pollution or radiation, and a single droplet could power New York City for a full day. With fossils fuels dwindling, the promise of harnessing antimatter could be an enormous leap for the future of this planet. Of course, mastering antimatter technology brings with it a chilling dilemma. Will this powerful new technology save the world, or will it be used to create the most deadly weapon ever made?

This is very largely nonsense — and again, nonsense presented as fact, not as fiction.

The notion of antimatter as an “energy source” is an absolute impossibility. It is not true that CERN scientists study antimatter “in their research for future energy sources.” CERN research on antimatter is basically just studying the fundamental laws of physics.

Antimatter is no more “powerful” than regular matter. The energy released by a matter–antimatter annihilation is simply the combined energy of the two particles. An anti-particle — say, an anti-proton — contains no more energy than its opposite particle, a proton. Antimatter does not “ignite” when it comes into contact with “anything”; rather, every type of anti-particle annihilates on contact with its own corresponding particle of normal matter. Thus, anti-protons annihilate on contact with protons, positrons annihilate on contact with electrons, and so forth.

If antimatter were a natural resource that could be “mined” and then annihilated with regular matter, it might be possible to use it as an energy source, just as we burn wood in order to harvest the solar energy stored in the wood. However, wood could not be an energy source if there were no sun and we had to grow trees under artificial light. The energy expended in order to light the trees would always far exceed the energy harvested by burning the wood. The process would lose energy, not create it.

That’s the situation in a nutshell with antimatter. The only way to get antimatter is to create it ourselves, at an enormous expenditure of energy. Of necessity, far more energy is expended in creating antimatter than could ever be harvested in annihilating it, just as more energy always goes into growing a tree than could ever be harvested by burning it.

Thus, while it may be true that a droplet’s worth of antimatter could power New York City for a month, the energy needed to create that droplet of antimatter in the first place would power New York for going on a billion years. Even if, per impossibile, the technology improved so that we could create antimatter with 100% perfect efficiency, we would still never get out more than we put in. For this reason, there is absolutely no prospect of creating antimatter as an “energy source.”

It would also, not incidentally, take billions of years to create enough antimatter to power New York for a month — or to blow up Vatican City. Most of the anti-particles created at CERN are immediately annihilated on contact with their normal-matter particles. It is true that small amounts of (electrically charged) antimatter can be captured in an electromagnetic trap. It is also true, as Brown claims in an opening FACT statement, that recent experiments at CERN, notably the 2002 ATHENA and ATRAP experiments, succeeded in creating millions of antihydrogen atoms at a time.

However, the technology to generate a gram of antimatter is completely beyond us, as is the technology to capture it. A gram of, say, anti-hydrogen would contain approximately 6.022 x 1023 atoms (a figure commonly known as Avogadro’s number). That is so much larger than the mere millions of anti-hydrogen atoms CERN is currently capable of making that to create a gram of anti-hydrogen using this process would take billions of years. It is also far more than the amount of anti-hydrogen containable with present technology. For more, see CERN’s own highly informative and entertaining Angels & Demons FAQ.

It isn’t only with respect to the esoterica of antimatter that Brown gets science facts wrong. On Langdon’s trans-Atlantic flight, he’s told that people weigh thirty percent less when traveling at sixty thousand feet. In fact, the gravitational effect of rising to that altitude involves a change in weight of less than one percent.

Whatever the subject, Angels & Demons reliably botches it. The book and film versions both refer to cardinals who are considered likely successors to the Chair of Peter as preferiti (“favorites”), rather than the standard term papabile (“popeable” or pope material).

Brown mistranslates “Novus Ordo Seclorum” as “New Secular Order” (and ascribes it to the Illuminati) rather than “New Order for the Ages.” He floats the outrageous claim that the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist was “borrowed from the Aztecs,” though the Aztec civilization came over a millennium later (not to mention the physical implausibility of trans-Atlantic cross-fertilization in the earliest days of Christianity), and likewise misascribes to Buddhism the Hindu art of hatha yoga, which predates Buddhism.

He garbles Ionic and Doric columns, calling the Doric order the “Greek counterpart” of the Ionic, when in fact both are Greek. He calls the Swiss Guard “the sworn sentinels of Vatican City,” a description that would better apply to the Vatican gendarmerie, as the Swiss Guard defend the person of the Holy Father, not the Vatican city state. (The movie gets this right; the book doesn’t. The book refers to a Swiss Guard working undercover in St. Peter’s Square. The only reason real Swiss Guards would be in St. Peter’s Square would be if the pope were there or if they were off duty.)

An exhaustive list would be nearly impossible. It is hard to find an unproblematic page of Angels & Demons.

“Almost ingeniously bad”

Even for sheer popcorn entertainment value, while Angels & Demons offers a more engaging plotline than the turgid Da Vinci Code — and makes for a more watchable film — the sheer clunkiness of Brown’s literary mechanics make the book a chore to wade through. It would not be an overstatement to say that Brown’s writing is the worst prose style I have ever encountered in a popular edition, with the possible exception of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. (I have read worse writing in self-published and obscure works, as well as online.)

“Brown’s writing is not just bad,” writes Dr. Geoffrey K. Pullam, Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, in the first of a number of blog posts on Brown at Language Log. “[I]t is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives.”

Among other things, Pullam calls out Brown’s penchant for opening action scenes with clumsy “curriculum vitae details” in sentences like “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery” (the first sentence of The Da Vinci Code) and “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own” (the first sentence of Angels & Demons). Pullam delights in debunking Brown’s literary non sequiturs: a voice “chillingly close” yet fifteen feet away; a “mountainous silhouette” with visible pupils and irises as well as skin and hair color.

Pullam’s examples are from The Da Vinci Code; similar instances from Angels & Demons aren’t hard to find. On the first page of chapter one of Angels & Demons, we read that “Langdon sat up in his empty bed”; two pages later, “Robert Langdon wandered barefoot through his deserted Massachusetts Victorian home … ” But he’s still in the bed on the first page, and obviously occupying his Massachusetts Victorian home; you can’t sit up in an empty bed or wander through your deserted home, barefoot or otherwise.

This, of course, is Brown’s inept way of letting us know that Langdon lives and sleeps alone — which perhaps partly explains the author’s embarrassing eagerness, two paragraphs later, to establish his hero’s virility and attractiveness. “Although not overly handsome in a classical sense,” we read, “the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an ‘erudite’ appeal — wisp of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete.”

The next paragraph goes on to tell us how Langdon’s friends “had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma” — a bohemian classicist who could be seen “lounging on the quad in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history” as well as “in his Harris tweed and paisley vest, photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.”

Literarily, the problem with this preoccupation with Langdon’s credentials as a fascinating, virile, maverick man of the world is that in this scene Langdon is — as Brown has clearly if clumsily established — alone in his home; there’s no one else in the scene for Langdon to impress with his erudite appeal, or through whose eyes we might experience the Langdon effect. So either Langdon himself is sitting around meditating on his own personal mystique — or else, if no one in the scene is thinking about it, we have the author transparently telling (rather than showing) what he wants us to know about his hero, which is to say, indulging his own authorial enthusiasm for his hero’s mystique (with the implication that readers will be equally fascinated).

All of this would be embarrassing enough if Brown merely admired his hero — but in fact it’s pretty obvious that Brown views Langdon as a fictional version of himself. Five minutes into my first experience of Brown’s writing, a few pages into The Da Vinci Code, having read about Langdon’s “scholarly allure,” his voice that female students described as “chocolate for the ears,” and his general “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed … and Burberry turtleneck” look, I suddenly knew that if I flipped to the back dust jacket flap, I would find a picture of the author wearing precisely that tweed and turtleneck look. (Sure enough, there it was.)

Why is Brown so popular? What do fans see in Angels & Demons? Here, from Amazon.com, is the most highly rated positive user review of Angels & Demons — not a user review chosen at random, but the positive review voted most helpful by other users:

I don’t mind suspending disbelief if a story is well written and ANGELS AND DEMONS fit nicely in that category. What makes Dan Browns’s books spectacular (in my humble opinion) is the attention to detail and the research that he incorporates into his stories. I was fascinated by Brown’s telling of the secrets of the Vatican and the Illuminati and the parts played by Galileo and Bernini.

Well written, attention to detail, research incorporated into the stories. What more is there to say?

Tags: Anti-Catholic, Pope Fiction, Religious Themes

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Mail: Re: Fact-Checking Angels & Demons: Lies, Damned Lies and Dan Brown

Although I don’t necessarily agree 100% with all of Dan Brown’s “theories,” there is something to be said about “reference material.” Sir, where did you get your facts from? If you have no source material to back it up, it leaves you in the same place as Mr. Brown.

The problem with the world is we all think we know everything, so instead of listening to what others are saying, and exploring the possibility of it being true, we stare quietly into the others eyes, the whole time not hearing a word due to the fact we are already thinking of the next “witty” thing to say. Being book-smart can make you very narrow minded. I can see by a lot of your comments that you are probably Catholic, and offended by his “facts.”

Which of my facts are you interested in?

On antimatter, I visited CERN in Geneva (courtesy of Sony Pictures) and spoke to actual quantum physicists (as well as Ron Howard and Tom Hanks), though most of the facts I referenced can be verified from CERN’s own website.

In Rome I visited the relevant churches (again courtesy of Sony), including Santa Maria del Popolo, Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Pantheon and St. Peter’s, where I saw the “West Ponente” tile (along with the 15 other tiles Brown conveniently ignores) and the tomb of Alexander VII (not, as reported by Brown, at Santa Maria del Popolo, which I can also verify is not where Brown said, or oriented in its piazza as he described). I saw the passetto wall where Brown claimed to be inspired to write Angels & Demons while touring “beneath Vatican City,” though in fact the passetto is above ground, not below.

I can vouch from my own eyes for the unreliability of Brown’s descriptions of churches, tombs and other architectural landmarks, despite his assurances that in this regard his book offers only “entirely factual” descriptions and “exact locations.” Again, most of this information can be verified by mass first-hand attestation from online sources.

Anyone can Google “Sylvia Cavazzini,” the “scholar” whom Brown claims gave him his passetto tour, and try to find online evidence of any academic work she may have done. Anyone can Google Bernini’s Four Rivers and see which rivers are represented (and consult an atlas to determine whether they are all in the Old World as Brown says). Anyone can look up the meaning of the word “cathedral” in a dictionary, or Google Musei Vaticani vs. Musèo Vaticano, something neither Brown nor his editors or proofreaders bothered to do.

I suspect you may be more interested in historical questions around the Illuminati, Galileo, La Purga and such. A question: If Brown is manifestly and consistently unreliable on matters of verifiable fact for which he promises an “entirely factual” descriptions and “exact locations” — when he cannot even reliably report autobiographical details from his own life — why should he be given any credence on matters of history where he appears to be at odds with historians of all stripes?

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Review: The Da Vinci Code (2006)

F | | -4|

Is The Da Vinci Code anti-Catholic? Well, if it isn’t, then we must simply conclude that no such thing as anti-Catholicism exists, or at least that no anti-Catholic movie has ever been made.

Continue reading this review >

Review: Angels & Demons (2009)

D | **½ | -2| Teens & Up*

Once you’ve established that your story is set in a world in which Jesus Christ is explicitly not God, and the Catholic religion is a known fraud perpetuated by murder and cover-ups, it sort of sucks the wind out of whatever story it was you were going to tell us next. Langdon could be ironing his chinos and helping little old ladies across the street, and it would still be set in that world, and those of us who care about such things will find it hard to bracket that and just go along with the thrill machine.

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Article: Rome and Geneva: Religion and Science in Angels & Demons

When Sony Pictures, the production company behind the hit film The Da Vinci Code and the new sequel Angels & Demons, reached out to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN management in Geneva saw a high-profile teachable moment for science.

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