BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden
« Previous | Main | Next »

Scientists capture antimatter

Tom Feilden | 09:44 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

Antimatter trap at Cern

It's a staple of science fiction: the energy source that powers the Starship Enterprise, and the explosive charge fuelling a dastardly plot to blow up the vatican in Dan Brown's Angels and Demons.

But now antimatter has moved from the realm of science fiction - or more accurately science theory - to science fact. Researchers working on the Alpha experiment at Cern have succeeded in trapping 38 atoms of anti-hydrogen for one sixth of a second.

That may not sound like much of an achievement, but the problem with antimatter is that as soon as it comes into contact with ordinary matter they annihilate each other instantly. Studying such an elusive substance in a laboratory where everything is inevitably made of matter presents a unique challenge.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

The researchers at the Alpha experiment have got round this problem by trapping antimatter particles in a series of overlapping magnetic fields. For a brief moment the particles are held in suspended animation.

"Capturing anti-hydrogen is a major breakthrough in antimatter physics" claims Swansea University's Dr Niels Madsen, a co-author on the research paper published in the journal Nature. "Having the anti-atoms trapped will allow for comparisons of matter and antimatter to a level that, until now, would have been considered wishful thinking".

The equipment for the Cern antimatter experiment

The existence of antimatter was first suggested by the theoretical physicist Paul Dirac in the 1930's.

Working on a theory to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein's special relativity he realised his equations predicted a corresponding antiparticle for every particle in existence - identical in every respect, but with an opposite electrical charge.

It's important because scientists studying the origins of the universe believe that almost equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created in the big bang. The vast majority of these particles were instantly annihilated as matter and antimatter came into contact. The slight discrepancy in favour of matter accounts for all the stuff we see today - every atom in every star, galaxy, planet or cup of coffee in existence.

The problem is that scientists can't explain this discrepancy - exactly why there is any stuff at all left over to make up the universe.

Studying antimatter in the laboratory could shed new light on the problem, and help to explain the fundamental laws of physics. Warp speed ahead.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's good that this got a mention on the Today programme this morning, but I despair for the science-free way in which it was covered.

    I felt for the professor who had to listen to the interviewer waste time burbling on about Star Trek and playing a ridiculous sound clip demonstrating how long a fifth of a second is.

    Just one tiny insight into the mind-bending questions raised by the idea of antimatter was what we needed.

  • Comment number 2.

    Call me a coward, but am I the only one frightened by this antimatter discovery?
    Fujiwara (leader Canadian Contingent): "We're very excited about the fact that we can actually now trap antimatter atoms long enough to study their properties and see if they're very different from matter."
    Eventually scientists are hoping to solve the mystery of what happened to most of the antimatter in the universe.
    Antimatter and matter are produced in equal quantities when energy is converted into mass; this is what happens in particle colliders and therefore it is believed to have happened during the Big Bang.
    Q. If matter and antimatter are produced in equal parts when energy was converted to mass where is all that antimatter?
    Tentative Answer: when antimatter and matter meet, they annihilate each other, producing pure energy, which comes from the meeting itself.
    The Canadian team built the electronics for this annihilation detector, which was used to confirm that 38 atoms of antihydrogen had been trapped.
    Fujiwara: "But this neutral atom has a tiny, tiny magnet."
    The magnet is so small that even using an extremely powerful magnetic field generated by a superconducting magnet, the researchers could only generate a small magnetic force on the antihydrogen atoms.
    The next step for the collaboration is to conduct experiments on the trapped antimatter atoms.
    Forty-two physicists from 15 institutions have contributed to the research, including 13 from Canada. Other participating countries were Japan, Brazil, Sweden, Denmark, Israel, the UK, and the United States.
    First we made the Gattling Gun.
    Later we made the hydrogen bomb.
    I guess the antimatter bomb - the annihilater - cannot be far behind.
    No radiation, just GONE?
    Why is that humankind, whenever faced with a great discoveries seems ultimately and invariably destined to use these things for destruction.

  • Comment number 3.

    Does anyone know if they were able to get a spectroscopy reading on the anti-matter, and if so, did it give the same reading as regular hydrogen?


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.