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A Great Mystery Comes Into Focus: Anti-Matter Trapped For 16 Minutes

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
June 7, 2011

Yesterday my son and I were driving through Pennsylvania when we stopped for gas. As I drained my wallet filling the tank, he went to the Quickie Mart and returned with $10 worth of ‘poppers’. A popper, for those who don’t know, is small paper-wrapped wad of explosive. Throw one down on a hard surface and it cracks with the report of a .22, leaving only a few paper shreds behind. Within about two minutes my son had gone through the entire box. Poppers don’t last long in the hands of a teenage boy and that makes them a good analogy for anti-matter — the universe’s strange and elusive “twin” version of mass.

For decades physicists have been trying to trap enough anti-matter to perform detailed experiments on its properties. But, like my son’s poppers, the anti-matter always disappeared quickly, annhilating itself on first contact with any speck of “real” matter in a burst of energy.

Those elusive, anti-matter hunting days appear to be over. Yesterday, a team of researchers at CERN managed to trap a significant chunk of anti-matter for a full quarter-hour. That’s a world record and it means an era of regular anti-matter experiments may be just ahead of us.

Anti-matter came as a surprise to physicists when it was discovered 80 years ago. Back then scientists had only just started getting used to the idea that all matter was made up of a zoo of particles like the electrically charged electrons (negative charge) and protons (positive charge). Then in 1928 Paul Dirac predicted that electrons must have an oppositely charged “anti-matter” twin.

Dirac saw that when an electron meets an oppositely charged anti-electron (called a positron) they would annihilate each other in a flash of energy (light). The positron’s existence was verified in experiments just a few years later and scientists soon came to realize that every matter particle had an anti-matter version as well. An entire periodic chart of anti-elements should, in principle, be possible, starting with simple anti-atoms like anti-hydrogen (a positron orbiting an anti-proton). But they quickly ran headlong into a dilemma.

Where is all the universe’s anti-matter?

For cosmologists studying the origin of the Universe it was pretty clear that equal amounts of matter and anti-matter must have spewed out from the fireball at the beginning of creation. But the Universe we live in, thankfully, is not made of equal parts matter and anti-matter (if it was, every move we made would lead to terrible explosions). There must be some subtle difference between matter and anti-matter that blew away the “anti-stuff” early in cosmic history, leaving only our matter-dominated Universe.

In our current epoch anti-matter makes only fleeting appearances in man-made particle accelerators or in very high-energy natural events.

The problem for physicists is they have never been able to collect large enough quantities of anti-matter to study it’s properties in detail. Anti-elements such as anti-hydrogen just disappear too quickly through collisions with matter. What they needed was a means of producing stable blobs of anti-matter to poke, probe and prod in experiments that would allow us to understand it’s properties on the deepest level.

Now, its appears, they have found the means.

Last year scientists at CERN, the main European particle physics laboratory (also the home of the LHC), were able to form anti-hydrogen and keep it around for a whopping two-tenths of a second. That was a world record. They achieved their milestone by finding novel ways to keep the anti-hydrogen from hitting the walls of the container and annihilating itself.

Now the same team (called the ALPHA antimatter experiment) has extended their anti-matter trapping out to 16 minutes and 40 seconds. That is a 5,000-fold increase in confinement time. After decades of getting nothing more than a fleeting glimpse of the stuff, keeping a treasure trove of anti-hydrogen captive for that long is both very impressive and very important.

The strange existence of anti-matter and its radical imbalance as a cosmic constituent is a fundamental mystery that has persisted for eight decades. With the ALPHA team’s achievement, we may finally be poised to understand not only the universe that is but also the universe that might have been. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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