Antimatter provides a peek into a hidden world


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BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS

If you’ve ever seen a science-fiction movie in your lifetime, you’ve probably heard the word “antimatter.” Ever since its discovery, sci-fi writers of all kinds have populated their universes with antimatter blasters, antimatter drives, and antimatter toasters. But what is antimatter? Antimatter is exactly what it sounds like: the mirror opposite of matter. Regular matter has atoms, protons, neutrons, and electrons, so antimatter consists of antiatoms, antiprotons, et cetera. So why is this important? Some scientists believe that once we harness antimatter, this mysterious substance could permanently replace clunky chemical rockets for future generations.

Despite its space-age trappings, the actual theory of antimatter was actually first proposed way back in 1928 when British physicist Paul Dirac correctly deduced that, in the same way that the mathematical equation x²=4 can have two possible solutions (2 or -2), the observable universe should have two outcomes: positive matter, or (theremin cue) antimatter.

So how do scientists know that antimatter even exists? Scientists know that every day, a miniscule quantity of antimatter hits the Earth. In 1995, scientists managed to briefly create antimatter using a particle accelerator that literally squeezed particles into both matter and antimatter. Although we’re improving, we’re a long way away from mass-producing the stuff. Furthermore, we know that antimatter and regular matter do not play nicely with each other. Any particle of antimatter that comes into contact with regular matter explosively cancels one another out – like a very violent math problem.

hhoOn December 19, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) took another step towards understanding the peculiar nature of this bizarre substance. Prior to this breakthrough, the understanding was that antimatter naturally organized itself into inversions of conventional matter: somewhere out there, there would be anti-atoms, anti-molecules… perhaps all the way up to anti-objects somewhere out there in the cosmos. The problem with this assumption was that antimatter had never been observed in any higher state than stray particles, and the fact that antimatter is invisible to the naked eye doesn’t help matters either.

Hoping to try and catch an antiatom “in the act,” CERN invented an antimatter trap, which uses lasers and clouds of electron gases to slow down recently created antimatter and isolate it from regular old matter to prevent it from cancelling itself out. The December experiment used hydrogen, a useful test subject as it’s the most abundant material in our universe. The endeavor proved successful and revealed the very first anti-atom of what scientists are tentatively calling “anti-hydrogen.”

So what now? Some visionary scientists have proposed a theoretical “antimatter drive,” where spacefaring humans could manufacture antimatter and harness the massive energy produced by antimatter/matter reactions to fling spaceships across vast interstellar distances.  More conservative researchers, including CERN, have stressed the next step on the long road to figuring out just what the heck antimatter can do for us. The first antiatom provides more clues into why the universe is the way it is, and how we can eventually use this eerie, invisible substance to our benefit.