This report aired on Dateline NBC on Friday, Oct. 15, 2009. The full video will not be online, but you can watch related web-exclusive videos here.
Imagine the scene: a mysterious temple, its entrance guarded by massive stone columns and sphinxes. Inside, strange symbols, ancient inscriptions, and mystical numbers lead to a room shaped like a pyramid, with an eye that points toward the heavens, and in the center of the floor, a massive altar.
Some of the most powerful men in the country gather here to enact an ancient, secret ritual, drinking wine meant to represent blood from a human skull, and all of it happening just a mile from the U.S. Capitol.
It sounds like a work of fiction, and it does come from one, the opening scene of Dan Brown's best-selling novel, "The Lost Symbol." But Brown makes a remarkable claim: that the ritual is real, part of the history of the secretive brotherhood called the Freemasons.
Matt Lauer: And when they found out that Dan Brown was going to be dealing with Freemasonry in this book, what was their reaction?
Dan Brown: Well, I think they were nervous that I might focus on what some would call the macabre sides of Freemasonry.
Perhaps with good reason. Brown has a history of prying open doors, revealing dark secrets - or at least seeming to. The central premise of his 2003 novel, "The Da Vinci Code," was an earth-shaking secret that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had children whose descendants live among us. The book infuriated some Christians. It also sold 80 million copies worldwide, became a blockbuster film, and made Dan Brown a household name.
Now, "The Lost Symbol" brings the same kind of high-profile scrutiny to the Freemasons, the Founding Fathers, and our nation's Capitol. "The Da Vinci Code" comes to Washington. Will it have the same impact?
Dan Brown: There's some very potent philosophical material and absolutely astonishing science that on some level I'm hoping will spark just as much debate.
How much debate? Consider this:
Dan Brown: America wasn't founded a Christian country. It became a Christian country.
Dan Brown: The human mind really does have the ability to affect matter.
“The Lost Symbol” raises provocative questions about the beliefs of the man on the dollar bill, about the power of the human mind, about whether people can become gods.
Dan Brown: It doesn't matter to me if someone agrees or disagrees with what I say. But I'd like them to at least think about it.
The book is a thriller, a headlong chase through some of Washington's most famous landmarks, and also through puzzles, secret codes, and dark corners of history, starting with the secretive group at the center of "The Lost Symbol": the Freemasons, a worldwide brotherhood that's centuries old, and still active.
George Washington was a Mason, along with 13 other presidents and numerous Supreme Court Justices. Benjamin Franklin published a book about Freemasonry on his own printing press. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons, including the man with the biggest signature: John Hancock.
Freemasonry still has millions of members worldwide, and they still conduct rituals like this one performed for our cameras:
Reaper: If curiosity spurred you towards us, go away. Do not proceed. If you are capable of deception, tremble. Because you will be found out.
Freemasons have been accused of everything from murder to devil worship to secretly controlling the U.S. government. Take a dollar bill, turn it over, look at the great seal of the United States on the back. Now draw a star of David. One point will match up with the all-seeing eye: a common Masonic symbol. Now look at the letters at the other points of the star:
M... A... S... O... N.
Coincidence? Video: M-A-S-O-N on the dollar bill
Matt Lauer: Freemasons have been accused of being involved in some rather strange conspiracies. A lot of that the result of the fact that you had powerful men, in this case, meeting behind closed doors and not discussing what they were doing?
Dan Brown: Of course. I mean, any time you have powerful people who aren't telling you what They're doing-- you're going to assume the worst.
In Brown's book, the Freemasons are infiltrated by a man who believes they hold a great secret to mystical power. He's a larger than life villain named "Mal'akh" whose entire body is covered with tattoos of occult symbols.
Dan Brown: And there is an animal quality about him. He has feather tattoos on his legs. He's got giant double-headed phoenix on his chest.
Matt Lauer: He saves one square inch of his flesh--
Dan Brown: Yes.
Matt Lauer: --for something that he is coveting. What is that?
Dan Brown: That is the lost word. The last piece of the puzzle. This word that at least in his twisted mind will be the-- the coup d'etat. The cherry on top of the sundae that will be his transformation. That will give him power.
Mal'akh thinks the Masons' secret word will make him an all-powerful agent of evil, and he thinks that he can bring down the government with proof that some of its highest ranking officials are Freemasons. The man who must prevent all that from happening is, of course, Harvard professor Robert Langdon, the hero of "The Da Vinci Code," played by Tom Hanks in the movies. Langdon must find the lost symbol before Mal'akh does in order to save an old friend- and possibly the world - from Mal'akh's evil scheme. We'll hear from Dan Brown about the mysteries of freemasonry, and from the Freemasons themselves about the secrets they've kept for centuries.
We'll take a tour of Washington, D.C. unlike any you've taken before, uncovering secret places with Dan Brown as our guide. And we'll go to the fringes of science and the depths of prehistory in search of what Brown calls the true meaning of his latest book- and why, he says, it actually changed his beliefs.
Dan Brown: I spent a lot of time researching and really had to get to the point where I realized, "You know what? The world's a stranger place then we thought."
“The Lost Symbol" starts with a gruesome discovery. Dan Brown's hero, Robert Langdon, is lured to Washington, D.C. to the U.S. Capitol, where, at the center of the rotunda, he finds a severed hand, tattooed to resemble an ancient mystical symbol: the hand of the mysteries.
It beckons him on a dangerous journey. The hand belongs to an old friend of Langdon's who's been kidnapped by the villain, Mal'akh: a man named Peter Solomon. Solomon runs the Smithsonian Institution. But he's also a thirty-third degree Freemason of the Scottish rite. This is the headquarters of the Scottish Rite Freemasons in Washington, D.C. They call it the house of the temple, and it's where we talked with Dan Brown, who wove the secrets of the Masons into the taut rope of his story.
Matt Lauer: One character is being elevated to the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite. It's a rather intense ritual. He he drinks wine, which is to represent blood out of a skull how much of that is fact and how much of that is fiction?
Dan Brown: Well, this is a real ceremony. The ceremony is described accurately. The fiction comes in as to whether or not it still happens at this moment in history in this room.
Brown's villain, Mal'akh, is the man drinking the wine. He's journeyed deep into Freemasonry to find out its secrets - and so will we. Mal'akh is fiction, but how much of the ritual is real?
Arturo de Hoyos: Dan Brown's book is very exciting. And like any good work of fiction, it has to involve both truth and error to make it believable.
Arturo de Hoyos is the grand archivist and grand historian of the supreme council of the Scottish rite and himself a 33rd-degree Mason.
Arturo de Hoyos: One of the things that's wrong is on the very first page. We don't perform the 33rd Degree in this building. We don't confer it at night. The candidates to the members are dressed wrong. And the ceremony's wrong.
Maybe they don't do the ceremony in this building, but there's evidence Freemasons have done it. Brown can quote multiple historical sources. What is the truth? To find out, we have to delve into the distant past.
Mitch Horowitz: Masonry in many respects is a historic mystery.
Mitch Horowitz is the author of the new book, "Occult America." He's a scholar of esoteric religions and secret societies.
Mitch Horowitz: Masons themselves cannot agree on the nature of their own origins and background. Masonry may be the only modern organization for which that's true.
The origins of the Freemasons are shrouded in mystery. Art de Hoyos outlines the simplest theory:
Arturo de Hoyos: Freemasonry developed primarily in medieval Scotland and England with the Stonemasons’ guilds and societies.
In other words, the first Masons were literally that: stonecutters, the men who built the great cathedrals of Europe, and who wanted to guard their trade secrets.
Arturo de Hoyos: So they developed a system of secret signs and secret passwords.
De Hoyos says the tradesmen started another system associated with Freemasonry-- the so-called "three degrees:" apprentice, fellow of the craft, and master mason, still used in Freemasonry today. So is the symbol of a square and compass, mason's tools with the letter "g", signifying both "geometry" and "God." At meetings masons wear elaborately decorated aprons, symbolic representations of the ones worn by working stonemasons. But some say there's much more to Freemasonry: a deeper, older, more mystical side.
Mitch Horowitz: Freemasonry has been a vessel, a channel, for some very ancient ideas.
In fact, some masons say the group originated in the holy land, in biblical times, with the builders of Solomon's temple. Many Masonic symbols are even older than that.
Mitch Horowitz: The all seeing eye, the pyramid, the obelisk. It drew very deeply upon the symbols of pre-Christian religion because it believed that it was part of a chain of a spiritual search for truth that was older than any modern or contemporary religion.
In the novel, Mal'akh believes the masons know mystical secrets that will make him an all powerful demon. He infiltrates the group, kidnaps its leader, and uses blackmail to try to get what he wants. That's fiction. But in fact, their freethinking about religion once caused the Vatican to denounce the masons as Satanic. And in the 1800's Masons in upstate New York were accused of murdering a man named William Morgan, who threatened to expose their secret rituals.
Today the web is full of anti-Masonic material.
Arturo de Hoyos: I frequently run into people who have heard of a couple of things about Freemasonry and no more. We killed William Morgan and we worship the devil, and that's about all they've heard of us.
Those people might be surprised to hear this:
Arturo de Hoyos: The father of our country was a Freemason. There's no question of this.
And historians agree that some principles of Freemasonry became cherished principles of the United States.
Arturo de Hoyos: Freemasonry was one of the earliest societies to advocate self-rule. We elected our own leaders. We had a secret ballot. We had a separation of powers. We were governed by a constitution. All these elements were very familiar to the founding fathers.
But remember Freemasons also had some radical ideas about religion. And as Dan Brown's hero, Robert Langdon, races Mal'akh through Washington, D.C. to find the secrets of Freemasonry, he reveals little-known facts about the founding fathers that might shock some readers.
Dan Brown: There was a statue that sat in the Capitol. It was George Washington as a god.
Hidden away on the lower level of the Masonic house of the temple, in Washington, D.C., there's a remarkable painting not many people have seen. George Washington, the first president of the United States, wears the decorated apron of Freemasonry. Nearby are the square and the compass, traditional symbols of Freemasonry. The painting is described in Dan Brown's best-selling novel "The Lost Symbol."
Dan Brown: It's a cornerstone laying ritual. And essentially, a date is chosen-- that is auspicious from an astrological standpoint. And there will be certain blessings that are given when this cornerstone is laid. And the idea is that whatever is to take place in that building will have a solid and auspicious beginning.
And what building is George Washington, Freemason, laying the cornerstone for? The United States Capitol.
Matt Lauer: And-- and it's not just the Capitol. Those ceremonies, those rituals were used in-- in the building of the Washington Monument and the White House.
Dan Brown: They were. As-- as well as many, many other buildings.
The lore of Freemasonry marks Washington in other hidden ways as well. Consider, for example, the number 33, cherished by the Masons.
Dan Brown: Thirty-three is a very important number-- in ancient mysticism. There's a reason that Jesus Christ was said to be 33. There is a reason that there are 33 vertebrae in our spine and that much of Freemasonry has to do with the concept of the body as a temple.
Thirty-three repeats throughout the Masonic house of the temple.
Matt Lauer: There are 33 columns or-- or pillars.
Dan Brown: Sure.
Matt Lauer: Each one 33 feet tall.
Dan Brown: Yes, sir.
And the same number is built into one of D.C.'s most famous sights.
Matt Lauer: Is it coincidence that the cap on the Washington Monument--
Dan Brown: There is-- there is no such thing as coincidence--
Matt Lauer: --weighs--
Dan Brown: --when-- when you're dealing with the number 33.
Matt Lauer: --weighs exactly 300-- 3,300 pounds?
Dan Brown: Yeah. 3,300 pounds.
That's right. The capstone matches that mystical number. Brown says the Freemasons influenced the founding of America in profound ways, and what he has to say may change what you think about how this country came to be.
Dan Brown: If you have a group of men who are Masons and simultaneously founding fathers and part of their Masonic ideal is that all men are equal, of course that will be of-- an underlying theme in the founding of a country. Another important aspect of Freemasonry is this idea of freedom of religion. We talked about these books on the altar.
Matt Lauer: It's inclusive. It's not exclusive?
Dan Brown: Exactly. That couldn't have said it better.
Freemasons assumed members believed in a supreme being. But that's as far as it went. Masons could worship Yahweh, Jesus, Allah-- or another god of their own choosing. Religious freedom was built into freemasonry... And, many scholars say the Freemasons built it into the U.S. Constitution. One-third of the signers were known to be Freemasons.
Brown says his research led him to a conclusion that might shock some people.
Dan Brown: America wasn't founded a Christian country. It became a Christian country. Important thing to remember with the masons and the founding fathers is that many of the founding fathers were deists.
Deists believe that a supreme being created the universe but that being is impersonal. It won't answer your prayers or even hear them.
Dan Brown: The concepts behind deism, where man is powerful and man is responsible are the underlying, core beliefs of Freemasonry.
Matt Lauer: So, when you talk about the founding fathers, who believe in deism as opposed to theism?
Dan Brown: Almost all of them.
Matt Lauer: Give me names.
Dan Brown: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams.
Matt Lauer: there are a lot of people who say there is no proof, for example, that Thomas Jefferson was a Freemason.
Dan Brown: That is true.
Matt Lauer: Okay.
Dan Brown: But certainly a deist. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to take the Holy Bible and remove all of the-- all of the references to anything miraculous-- to the resurrection, to the virgin birth. Jefferson himself said that the idea of the virgin birth, Christ springing from a virgin would one day seem as much like myth as the idea of Minerva springing from the head of Jupiter.
The Founding Fathers, Brown says, didn't just read The Bible. They also read Roman and Egyptian mythology. And they read the stars.
Matt Lauer: This reliance on astrology, what does it tell you? What does it suggest about our founding fathers?
Dan Brown: I think that they had a respect for what they did not understand, a respect for the heavens. The foundations of astrology really have a deep, mystical and spiritual underpinning that that the Masons were very in tune with.
Matt Lauer: it would be hard to imagine Barack Obama, taking a trip or or doing the groundbreaking on a major monument or something and using--
Dan Brown: Sure.
Matt Lauer: --astrology as a basis for the time and the place, he'd be ridiculed.
Dan Brown: And rightly so, I believe. The thing--
Matt Lauer: But why was it okay then and is it not okay now?
Dan Brown: Well, for the same reason it was okay to believe that-- if you threw a virgin into the ocean, a storm wouldn't hit you. You know--
Matt Lauer: That's not okay now? (laughter)
Dan Brown: So that's not okay, either? (laughter) You know, science progresses.
In “The Lost Symbol,” Mal'akh thinks that by learning the secrets of the Freemasons, he can become something like a god. You might be surprised to learn the founders had a similar idea.
Matt Lauer: There is a painting in the Capitol--
Dan Brown: Yes.
Matt Lauer: Tell me about it.
Dan Brown: Well it's a painting that I was shocked to find was there. I said, "There is a painting called the Apotheosis of Washington," apotheosis meaning, "The god-making of Washington--"
Matt Lauer: George Washington becoming a god.
Dan Brown: It seemed almost irreverential. It was like, "How can a man become a god?" And you start looking at this painting and you realize just how strange it is. But it really, to my eye, and to other historians' eye, catches this concept of the power of man.
Matt Lauer: Again, can you imagine anyone putting forth that notion of politicians as gods?
Dan Brown: Right.
Matt Lauer: Here we are in the 21st century--
Dan Brown: Well--
Matt Lauer: --you'd be run out of town.
Dan Brown: You'd be run out of town. There was a statue of George Washington that sat in the Capitol. He was unclothed-- he had a model of a statue of Zeus. It was George Washington as a god.
Matt Lauer: Right.
Dan Brown: And that did get run out of the Capitol building.
When they thought of becoming godlike, the founders were probably thinking about perfecting their minds through science and learning. In Brown's novel, however, the villain Mal'akh believes something much more profound and potentially sinister: that the Freemasons, from ancient times, through the time of George Washington to the present day, guarded secrets that could transform matter, transform a person, unleash incredible psychic and spiritual power. Most modern-day Masons say the brotherhood is not nearly so mysterious.
Arturo de Hoyos: There is no deep, dark, intimate and ultimate secret of Freemasonry which will transform the world in the way that The Lost Symbol portrays. It would be exciting if it were true, but such is not the case.
That's what most Freemasons say, but not all.
Cliff Porter: Sometimes it is said we have no secrets. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We'll learn some of their secrets next.
In Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," the hero Robert Langdon races through Washington, D.C., trying to unravel a secret Masonic message. He's forced to do it, by Mal'akh. He threatens to kill a man who's both a dear friend of Langdon's, and a thirty-third degree Freemason. Mal'akh also uses blackmail with evidence that some of Washington's most powerful men engage in Masonic rituals so bizarre, revealing them would bring down the government. Could the rituals of freemasonry be that shocking?
Cliff Porter: Masonry is a transformative art. It can be extraordinary in a man's life. It's-- speculative and alchemical and all those things.
Cliff Porter is senior warden of "enlightenment lodge 198" in Colorado. Brothers here say they are seeking eternal truths, learning ancient mysteries.
Cliff Porter: What I take offense to is the fact that sometimes it is said we have no secrets, or that what can be known about us can be Googled. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Somewhat reluctantly, they opened a few of their doors to our cameras. They practice alchemy here, the ancient art that sought to turn lead into gold. You might think of alchemy as pseudo-science. But it's also been used through the centuries as a metaphor of personal transformation.
Tim: This process of removing impurities to elevate it something greater, and more special, and more potent is very much what we also do within Freemasonry. Take good men, and make them grow into something more special.
Initiates go through a ritual that's meant to be intense and startling. First, the subject's vision is taken away with a "hoodwink" placed over his head. Then a master Mason-- dressed as the grim reaper - issues a warning.
If you persevere you will be purified, you will overcome darkness, you will be enlightened. But if your soul is fearful, do not proceed.
Shawn Beyer, Freemason: If you're not comfortable with what's going on, if you're nervous, if you think maybe you have approached the craft for the wrong reasons, you're given a chance to say I'm no longer okay with this.
Shawn Beyer joined the Freemasons recently and went through the initiation. Those who elect to continue are led into a place the masons would not let us show you...a "chamber of reflection."
Shawn Beyer: You go into the chamber of reflection, and you remove the hoodwink. And you're presented with what is a very interesting image. And Dan Brown described it pretty well in his book.
As Brown describes it, the chamber includes a human skull and bones, elements used in alchemy, and a pen and paper where the initiate can write a last will and testament.
Shawn Beyer: the symbols are meant to help you think about the fact that your life isn't gonna go on forever. And frankly, it causes a very profound experience.
In one of the most striking scenes in "The Lost Symbol," Robert Langdon discovers a Masonic chamber of reflection at the center of American power.
Matt Lauer: You described it as being located in the bowels of the Capitol. Did it exist?
Dan Brown: No, these-- chambers of reflection can exist anywhere.
Matt Lauer: Right.
Dan Brown: Many Masonic lodges have them. There are Masons who have them in their homes.
This kind of macabre symbolism has driven conspiracy theorists through the centuries to think the Freemasons practice some kind of black magic. Brown says Masonic rituals are no stranger than some other, more familiar ones.
Dan Brown: If a Catholic church, for example, pulled the shades and you heard through the grapevine that people were kneeling under a crucifix, an instrument of torture and consuming blood and flesh, ritualistically-- you might say, "What a terrible organization."
The Masons in Colorado say they embrace their symbolism and mysticism. But in many lodges across the country, the scene is a little different.
Mitch Horowitz: I often tell people that if you like bake sales join Freemasonry because that's what you're going to be doing.
Mitch Horowitz, author of the book "Occult America," says most Freemasons are far from mystical.
Mitch Horowitz: They run a wonderful network of free children's hospitals around the nation. They raise money for charity locally and nationally. They do continue to use occult and esoteric symbols. But to a very great extent these things are museum pieces in Freemasonry today.
You've probably seen the Shriners-- an offshoot of the Masons-- riding go-karts and raising money for charity. Freemasons even had the honor of being satirized on "The Simpsons."
Grand Master to Homer: Welcome to the club number 9-0-8. Now let's all get drunk and play ping-pong!
The Masons have also lost some clout since George Washington's day. The last master Mason to serve as president was Gerald Ford. But Brown says whether they know it or not, the Freemasons' secret rituals still connect them to a rich, powerful, mystical tradition.
Dan Brown: I intended this book as a reverential look at their philosophy.
Matt Lauer: And isn't there possibly another side of the coin here, in this day, where it's become a little more humdrum with the bake sales and the charitable drives, you've created a little more mystery. You've given some of their mystery back to them. And they might like that.
Dan Brown: I hope so. As with any organization, there are some who understand the core and some who are on the periphery. I'm hoping it starts to pull people in the direction of the ancient mysteries.
The ancient mysteries. They're the key to the plot of The Lost Symbol. But are they the key to much more?
Dan Brown: All of these texts from all of these different authors tend in a same direction. This idea of the power of the human mind and the ability of thought to actually transform the world in which we live.
The villain of the lost symbol, Mal'akh, is a giant who has covered himself with tattoos he thinks will give him mystical powers: a double-headed phoenix, the pillars from the temple of Solomon, a snake consuming itself.
You might think the symbols came from from Mal'akh's twisted mind. They came instead from a mysterious book called "The Secret Teachings Of All Ages," a favorite of Mal'akh's creator, Dan Brown.
Dan Brown: And that really is a core book for a lot of what I research and a lot of what I believe.
"The Secret Teachings" was written in the 1920s by a Canadian-American named Manly P. Hall who founded the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. It carries on his work, studying the wisdom of the ancients. Its director is Obadiah Harris:
Obadiah Harris: The ancient mysteries are about the divination of man, how it is that you can become more fully human and achieve a level of consciousness beyond the reasoning mind.
Mal'akh believes the Freemasons have guarded the ancient mysteries for centuries. He forces Robert Langdon to race through Washington, trying to decode messages the masons engraved on a stone pyramid, messages Mal'akh is convinced will lead him to the lost symbol of the ancient mysteries - and to unspeakable power.
Matt Lauer: And you draw a pretty straight line from the ancient mysteries to the Freemasons and to another subject that we haven't quite discussed yet. Is it an imaginary line or is it a real line?
Dan Brown: No, it's absolutely a real line. The ancient mysteries deal in the concept of the power of the human mind. The Masons celebrate mankind and the power of the human mind. In fact in the second degree ritual there's actually a line where they say, "Here you will learn the mysteries of human science."
There's a form of "human science" that Mal'akh wants to hijack for his own ends. It sounds like fiction... But it's not.
Dan Brown: Noetic science really is the reason this book took me so long to write. I've said before I'm a skeptic. And I hear about these experiments that are being done that categorically and scientifically prove that the human mind has power over matter.
Matt Lauer: The physical world?
Dan Brown: Power over the physical world.
The term "Noetic" derives from the Greek word for "mind." Noetic scientists study whether age old ideas like faith healing – ESP, mind over matter – actually have a scientific basis. In Dan Brown's novel, there's a secret lab at the Smithsonian doing cutting-edge research to prove the human mind has such power. Mal'akh breaks in, murders one scientist and tries to kidnap another. The secret lab is fiction. But there's a real one similar to it in Petaluma, California's Institute Of Noetic Sciences. Its director is Marilyn Schlitz.
Marilyn Schlitz: I would say Noetic is equivalent to intuition, that sense of feeling that isn't rational. "I just had a gut feeling about something." The science part of it is really bringing that lens of discernment, of rigor, of critical thinking to what is a non-rational process.
Schlitz showed us an experiment in which one subject, using her thoughts alone, tries to alter the vital signs of a second subject in a sealed room. Another experiment seeks to determine if people, again, through thought alone, can affect the formation of ice crystals. A third experiment involves machines called random event generators-- which Noetics researchers have placed on almost every continent.
Marilyn Schlitz: They are essentially electronic coin flippers. So if you imagine flipping a coin 100 times, you would expect, based on a normal probability distribution, that you'd get an equal number of heads and tails.
In some experiments, she says, human thought alone has affected these machines, changing the ratio of heads to tails.
Matt Lauer: And it's the power of of the human mind? The power of group thought? The power of group focus?
Dan Brown: I don't know. That's the --
Matt Lauer: But how can you this be so central to the book if we don't know? I mean that's a it's a very difficult concept to get your arms around.
Dan Brown: Well--
Matt Lauer: And there are some, let's be honest, who think it's a hoax.
Dan Brown: Sure.
You don't have to look far to find them. Ray Hyman, a former professor of psychology at the University Of Oregon, has made a mission of exposing what he considers scientific fraud-- and Noetic science is on his hit list.
Ray Hyman: Noetic science is not the science that we know of as physics and chemistry and even psychology. There's very little science there, as far as I'm concerned.
Nevertheless, the Institute of Noetic Sciences has received a grant from the federal government to study "distance healing"-- what you might call prayer.
Dan Brown: I spent a lot of time researching Noetic science and really had to get to the point where I realized, "You know what? The world's a stranger place then we thought." And the human mind really does have the ability to affect matter.
He says his new belief led to an old fear.
Dan Brown: Every single scientific breakthrough in human development, whether it was fire or nuclear power, has been turned into a weapon. My fear is that we start to learn how to use our minds and that our innate dark sides will use it for evil.
Which, of course, is exactly Mal'akh's goal, one he's willing to kidnap, torture, and kill for.
Matt Lauer: and what you've set up in the book is the people who think about, "Boy, we can change the world in a positive way." Your villain in this book, Mal'akh, says, "Wait a minute. I don't want that renaissance."
Dan Brown: Right.
Matt Lauer: I want this to be a source of evil.
Dan Brown: Mal'akh is the reminder that with knowledge comes responsibility.
It may sound heavy for a beach read. But Brown doesn't seem worried.
Dan Brown: I think my books contain a lot of meat but it tastes like dessert somehow.
He manages that by folding the big ideas into a book-length, high-speed chase, all the while revealing the secrets of a city that seems familiar.
What other secrets does Washington hold? Brown himself will show us next.
"The Lost Symbol" takes you on a high-speed journey to uncover secrets in Washington, D.C. Dan Brown helped us retrace the steps of his fictional hero, Robert Langdon.
Dan Brown: One thing I love to do is to get people to see things through a slightly different lens.
Brown showed us the nation's capital through his eyes-- and it does look different.
Dan Brown: This city has all the intrigue of Rome or Paris when it comes to architecture.
The Capitol Rotunda-- where the fictional Langdon makes a gruesome discovery has a real-life secret, stumps of iron in the floor that used to be part of a railing. In the 1820's, there was a hole in the floor-- leading down to a lower level, the "Capitol Crypt."
Matt Lauer: You also found this labyrinth of rooms in the basement areas and sub-basement of the capital?
Dan Brown: Right. The under stories of the U.S. Capitol are filled with these tiny room. The blueprint of the Capitol building is an astonishing document. It-- it looks like-- it looks like a-- right out of a labyrinth of ancient Greece.
Landgon flees through that labyrinth and emerges across the street, in the Library Of Congress, which has its own treasures-- hidden in plain sight.
Dan Brown: you've got this astonishing staircase with an anachronistic sort of feature one of these little cherubs, these putti. You've got one up here: It's holding a telephone.
Matt Lauer: It's right-- yeah, right there.
Dan Brown: I mean, you've got-- and you've got one down here. Over here, you've got an entomologist. He's catching butterflies.
With this bizarre fusion of these little religious figures with with scientific concepts.
And, of course-- we had to check out the main reading room, where Brown's hero narrowly escapes his pursuers by riding a conveyor belt meant for books.
Dan Brown: it's my favorite room in all of D.C.
Matt Lauer: Is it really?
Dan Brown: Without a doubt. It's been called the most beautiful room in the world. It's an octagon lit in eight different directions so there are no shadows, no shadows anywhere. The room-- room really seems to-- to radiate.
Langdon needs a place to hide out - a sanctuary - but to get there he has to solve a riddle: "A refuge containing ten stones from Mount Sinai, one from heaven itself, and one with the visage of Luke's dark father."
The answer really does reside at the National Cathedral... With stones from Mount Sinai in the altar steps ... A moon rock set in a stained glass window, and a gargoyle in the form of Darth Vader. As for the Smithsonian laboratory where Mal'akh commits a terrible murder, it really exists. Video: Secrets of the National Cathedral
Matt Lauer: Almost everyone that's come to Washington knows of the Smithsonian.
Dan Brown: Sure.
Matt Lauer: Very few people know of a facility located just outside of Washington that is the support center for the Smithsonian. Why did it fascinate you?
Dan Brown: What's not to be fascinated? This place has got a giant squid. There's an enormous series of labs that will study everything from fleas to-- the baleen from whales.
One of "The Lost Symbol's" greatest puzzles is also the last stop on Dan Brown's mystery tour.
Matt Lauer: At the CIA, there is a sculpture that I don't think a lot of people know.
Dan Brown: There is a-- an American sculptor, James Sanborn, and he has created a sculpture that-- fascinates me and-- and a lot of cryptologists that has-- an enormous series of letters on them that appear random but are actually-- a code.
Matt Lauer: And-- and who knows the meaning of that code?
Dan Brown: Only W.W.
Matt Lauer: That's it?
Dan Brown: That's it.
W.W. is William Webster, the director of the CIA in 1990, when "Kryptos" was installed. Brown says Webster was given the key to the sculpture's secret messages, but he's never revealed it. And not one of the CIA’s army of cryptologists has cracked the entire code.
Matt Lauer: It-- it's obvious to anybody who's read your books that you love puzzles. You--
Dan Brown: I do.
Matt Lauer: --loved codes. You know, a Rubik's Cube must have been your best friend at some point.
Dan Brown: It was.
Matt Lauer: I mean-- it-- what-- (laughter) what is-- is in your opinion the most fascinating code, puzzle, symbol in this book?
Dan Brown: The most fascinating code I left out of this book.
Matt Lauer: Why?
Dan Brown: Be-- it was too complicated. It was just too tough to use.
Matt Lauer: Well, you can't tell me that--
Dan Brown: It--
Matt Lauer: --and now not tell--
Dan Brown: --it's--
Matt Lauer: --me about it?
Dan Brown: Well, I'm not gonna tell you about it. It's in the next book.
Speaking of the next book...
Matt Lauer: Just between us, what's it about?
Dan Brown: Just between us? (laugh)
Matt Lauer: And the Freemasons in this room.
Dan Brown: And the Freemasons. That-- that will be laid bare at some point in the future.
Matt Lauer: Yeah? And-- and-- is it similar subject matter?
Dan Brown: No.
Matt Lauer: Complete departure?
Dan Brown: Not complete. Nothing's complete. Everything builds on something else.
Just as Brown says his current book builds on his previous ones... And asks the reader for something more as well.
Matt Lauer: There's a call to action in this book. Where you basically challenge the reader to take what you've just told them over the course of the previous 500 pages and decide what he or she wants to do with it. And did you set out to write that ending or did that just happen?
Dan Brown: In some ways it just happened. This amount of research and intellectual growth that went into writing this novel really led to that rather hopeful ending. And thank you forseeing that it is a call to action.
You see, the whole headlong chase through Washington, the secrets of the Freemasons, the ancient mysteries, Noetic science. For Dan Brown, it all adds up to a series of important questions: How well do we know our history? How well do we understand our beliefs?How well do we grasp the powers of our own minds?
Matt Lauer: Last word of the book is one that will surprise people.
Dan Brown: Yes.
Matt Lauer: It is?
Dan Brown: Hope.
Matt Lauer: Hope. And it means what?
Dan Brown: In the context of this book the last word means that we can do better and that we will do better.
And as Brown's millions of fans know, we can also spend hours - or years - puzzling over the secret codes and mystical messages of "The Lost Symbol."
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