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CosmosUp | September 30, 2020

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What Is Antimatter? Why It Does Matter?

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What Is Antimatter? Why It Does Matter?

If it matters… it’s matter, but if you’re antimatter I guess you just don’t care about anything anymore. Matter is everything around us. It’s you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere! Even the land, and the ship! Matter is considered every physical substance in the universe; if it has mass, it’s matter. But then… there’s this other thing called antimatter.

During the Big Bang, the universe should have created half-and-half: 1 atom of matter, 1 of anti-matter. But look around you, matter is everywhere. Where’d all the anti-matter go?! It’s one of the great mysteries of physics…

Anti-matter is the same as matter, but opposite. Scientists have been looking for antimatter since it was theorized in the 1920s. Physicist Paul Dirac was trying to reconcile two new chapters in physics… Einstein’s theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. Think of it this way, when solving for X-squared equals four, X can be either 2 or negative 2. Up to this point, physicists had spent most of their energy — physics joke — on the positive solution — not the negative one. But since both give you the same result, antimatter must exist!

Obviously that’s very simplified, but that’s the idea. So, if you picture hydrogen, one positively charged proton, one negatively charged electron: that is matter. Balanced. Simple. ANTIhydrogen: is made of a negatively charged antiproton, and positively charged positron! This evil antimatter twin version has the same mass, by the way.

Experiments with antimatter in the journal Nature from November 2015 found antimatter behaves exactly like matter, which is actually confusing, shouldn’t the opposite particle behave… oppositely? More research is needed.

The base rule of old physics, is matter cannot be created or destroyed, but, that’s not strictly speaking true. In fact, when an electron hits a positron they annihilate one another, turning into energy in the form of gamma rays — specifically gamma rays at 511 kiloelectron volts! To scale that up, if 1 kilo of antimatter hit a kilo of matter — based on E=mc squared — the resulting explosion would be 3,000 times the Hiroshima bomb.

So, new physics, energy cannot be created or destroyed; because matter and energy are the same. But this annihilation is a big clue as to where antimatter went. We know this annihilation happens because of particle accelerators. When high energy particles are smashed together, or go through beta decay naturally, tiny bits of antimatter are created. They clearly want to study this, but they need to hold onto it, and therein lies the rub.

LHC Smash: antimatter

LHC Smash! – Starts With A Bang. ©Wikipedia/Lucas Taylor

Our universe is full of matter. Whenever scientists create a particle of antimatter, it hits the mattery walls of the container and instantly annihilates itself! How frustrating would that be? There was literally no way to hold antimatter in place and get a look at it — until now.

In 2002, the ALPHA collaboration team at CERN announced they’d trapped 38 antihydrogen atoms for 172 milliseconds each. A breakthrough at the time, but not a lot of stuff, or a long time. Then in 2010, scientists trapped hundreds of antimatter atoms for more than 15 minutes! Giving them time to explore how these mysterious things work! With this study, published in Nature Physics, as a base, cosmologists believe the Big Bang somehow created more matter than antimatter. Not much more… mind you, but more.

A piece in The Guardian describes it as an “infinitesimally small excess.” Then, in the seconds after the Big Bang — all the antimatter and matter annihilated each other leaving just matter, and creating HUGE amounts of energy! Of course, that’s just a hypothesis. So far, the lack of asymmetry — or the fact that matter and antimatter seem to behave exactly the same — is super confusing for scientists… IF there was asymmetry, then they could predict why the matter survived this great annihilation, but so far… they don’t know.

One study is currently using supercomputers to try and find any tiny difference between the two. We’ll see. Otherwise, antimatter is dead useful, Star Trek famously uses it to power spacecraft, which makes sense and might actually work out of fiction, but closer to home, antimatter could be combined with traditional nuclear technologies to kick off fusion reactors.

Positron Emission Tomography involves putting these antimatter positrons into the human body, knowing they’ll annihilate and emit the predictable 511 keV gamma rays, revealing tumors and mapping the patient. 1.1 million of these PET scans were performed in 2005 alone. And, with a little more energy in the right place, those antimatter-matter annihilations could even be used to hyperlocally treat cancer without harming surrounding tissues!

Matter matters! But it’s not just about matter vs antimatter. There are also states… Solid, liquid, gas, plasma… And maybe a new one too! After all this research, I am so PRO antimatter! But what do you think? Does it even matter?



  1. Alberto

    Absolutely awesome article!

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