Antimatter Breakthrough Is A New Chapter in Science

cern-alpha-experiment

Antimatter isn’t just a thing of science fiction—powering the engines of Stark Trek’s Enterprise—in fact, without antimatter there would be no PET scans. And recently, scientists made a significant breakthrough in the study of it.

What is antimatter?

The universe is a crazy place where there is an antimatter particle with the opposite charge for every kind of matter particle in existence. The negatively charged electron in matter, for example, is positively charged in antimatter, which is why it is called a positron.

So antimatter works like matter, but with the inverse of charge. When matter and antimatter come into contact they annihilate each other. This has perplexed scientists because while they have been able to create and hold antimatter for up to 15 minutes at a time using magnetic fields, once it comes into contact with a container, it is destroyed.

Additionally, scientists believe that at the beginning of the universe, there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which should have led to the utter destruction of both. But somehow some matter survived. To figure out why this is the case, it requires more scrutiny of the finicky antimatter and how it interacts with the laws of physics..

This makes it incredibly hard to observe and study, that is, until recently, when scientists at CERN’s ALPHA experiment that works with trapped antihydrogen atoms was able to use a special laser to observe antimatter (“Observation of the 1S–2S transition in trapped antihydrogen“). They hoped to see if the effect on hydrogen would be the same with antihydrogen. It was. The antihydrogen emits light like the hydrogen atom.

It is a major breakthrough in the field and will help (obligatory pun here) shed light on how antimatter works with the laws of physics. As research gets more precise, differences may appear and new information about the laws governing antimatter may be clearer.

Want to know more about antimatter and this experiment? Below you’ll find two explainers: the first is MinutePhysics’ short primer on what antimatter is, the other is a Alpha Experiment’s spokesperson, Jeffrey Hangst giving the low-down on the breakthrough.

Antimatter Explained

Alpha Experiment Breakthrough

Photo: CERN: Brice, Maximilien

Written by Brandon Withrow
Freelance writer (The Daily Beast, The Guardian, RNS, etc.). Author of 9 books. Adjunct lecturer in religious studies. Lover of science.