What is it and why didn’t it destroy the universe?

It seems like sci-fi: regular matter has an “evil twin” that annihilates as quickly as the two come into contact. But this antimatter is very actual, and regardless of a long time of examine it stays very mysterious. So what really is antimatter? Where is it? Why is it essential that we perceive it? And why hasn’t it already destroyed the universe?

What is antimatter?

As unusual as it sounds, antimatter is primarily similar to common matter, besides its particles have the reverse cost. But that easy distinction has some main implications – if ever a particle and its antiparticle ought to meet, they’ll annihilate one another in a burst of vitality.

Lucky for us, antimatter is extraordinarily uncommon. It’s produced naturally in tiny quantities in cosmic ray interactions, throughout hurricanes and thunderstorms, and as a part of some varieties of radioactive decay – in actual fact, something with potassium-40 in it will spit out the occasional antimatter particle. That consists of bananas and sure, even you. But don’t fear, it received’t get far earlier than it collides with an electron and vanishes once more.

Artificially, antimatter is largely produced in particle accelerators like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, however once more solely in minuscule quantities, and it normally doesn’t final lengthy.

Every particle has its equal antiparticle – for instance, there’s the antiproton, the antineutron, and the antielectron (higher often called the positron). Some particles, comparable to photons, are literally their very own antiparticles.

These antiparticles also can hyperlink as much as kind antiatoms, so for instance an antiproton and an antielectron can kind an antihydrogen atom. Every component ought to have an antimatter equal, and they need to have all the similar properties as their common matter counterparts aside from cost.

Of course antimatter is not inherently “worse” than regular matter – we simply outline it as “anti” as a result of it’s the inverse to the stuff we’re used to. But if someplace on the market, there are creatures made from antimatter residing on an antimatter planet, orbiting an antimatter star in an antimatter galaxy (which, by the method, is all theoretically potential) – they’d most likely swap the matter and antimatter labels round.

It could be straightforward to confuse antimatter with darkish matter, however the two are very totally different. Dark matter is hypothesized to be unfold out all by the universe, and whereas there’s loads of proof that it exists, it nonetheless evades direct detection. Antimatter, on the different hand, is extraordinarily uncommon however has been experimentally confirmed and is the topic of fixed examine.


So how are we learning antimatter?

Scientists at amenities like CERN can create antimatter by smashing sure particles collectively in an accelerator, which produces showers of matter and antimatter pairs. When these pairs are separated, the antimatter will be saved and studied.

However, it’s a troublesome process, and as such only some dozen nanograms have ever been produced artificially. This additionally makes it far and away the most costly materials in the world to make, with scientists estimating that it prices as much as US$25 billion per gram. Part of the problem and price comes from storage, due to course it’s not as straightforward as simply sticking it in a jar, since it will annihilate most containers on contact.

So, scientists use what’s known as a Penning lure. Antimatter particles are suspended inside a vacuum chamber by electromagnetic fields, which retains them away from the sides. Using this technique, scientists first managed to lure atoms of antihydrogen for a number of fractions of a second in 2010, then prolonged that to over 16 minutes in 2011. The present document is storing antiprotons for 405 days.

If storing antimatter appears difficult, transporting it is an entire different degree of problem. In 2020, CERN detailed a brand new design for a lure that might be used to maneuver massive portions of antimatter over longer distances.

The machine, known as BASE-STEP, could be made up of two Penning traps, one which receives and releases antiprotons and the different to retailer them for transport. The traps could be surrounded by a 1-Tesla superconducting magnet to regular them, whereas a layer of liquid helium retains the system cool for lengthy durations of time. The complete unit is sufficiently small to load onto a truck, which may then transport the antimatter to different amenities for extra detailed examine.

It’s sufficient to make you marvel why we trouble in any respect, however antimatter has nice technological potential. In reality, it’s already discovered one helpful application which you will have skilled your self.

What may we use antimatter for?

If you’ve ever had a PET scan, you’ve had medical doctors watching your physique for antimatter annihilation occasions inside you. It’s proper there in the identify – PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography, and a positron is the antimatter model of an electron.

PET scans work by injecting sufferers with a radioactive tracer chemical, which emits positrons as its particles decay. These positrons will then collide with an electron in a affected person’s tissue, giving off gamma ray photons that are captured by a specialised digital camera. By tracing these occasions medical doctors can then reconstruct 3D photographs of organs and tumors.

A PET scan of a affected person, exhibiting regular accumulation of the tracer dye in the coronary heart and kidneys, in addition to a tumor in the liver

Jens Maus


If antimatter can ever be produced or collected at massive scales, we’d have the ability to use it for extra revolutionary purposes. The vitality launched when matter and antimatter collide is huge – only one gram of every would produce about the vitality of a 40 kiloton atomic bomb. Harnessing that would assist propel spacecraft of the distant future by the universe very effectively – only a few dozen milligrams of antimatter could be sufficient to ship a ship to Mars.

The darker facet, nonetheless, is that antimatter may make a weapon of untold damaging energy, however fortunately, the prohibitively excessive price retains that in the realm of Dan Brown novels. For now.

But earlier than we make any grand plans for antimatter, we have to examine it in much more element. After all, there are some basic questions we nonetheless don’t have the solutions to.

The large antiquestions

Besides having the reverse cost, matter and antimatter needs to be mainly the similar, and comply with the similar legal guidelines of physics – however the emphasis there is on “should.” Assumptions don’t make for stable science, so physicists have been double-checking the fundamentals simply in case, as a result of any anomalies may trace at an entire new chapter of the Standard Model of particle physics.

For instance: each component and compound has a novel fingerprint known as its emission spectrum, primarily based on which wavelengths of sunshine they soak up and which they emit. According to the Standard Model, matter and antimatter atoms of the similar component ought to have the similar spectrum, however it wasn’t till 2016 that CERN scientists lastly checked. The group zapped atoms of antihydrogen with a laser to measure its spectrum, and discovered that it matched that of normal hydrogen.

Another essential question is whether or not antimatter reacts to gravity the similar method common matter does. Again, it’s anticipated that it ought to, however there’s a couple of one in 1,000,000 likelihood that antimatter may really fall upwards as an alternative. It seems like a fairly primary factor we must always already know, however all work with antimatter to this point has needed to droop it in electromagnetic traps.

CERN has two separate experiments in the works to check the thought, often called GBAR and ALPHA-g. In each circumstances, the experiment design is fairly easy – swap off that lure and see if the annihilations happen under or above it. Hopefully we don’t have for much longer to attend for the outcomes.

But there’s one other main cosmic thriller that we may clear up by learning antimatter – why are we even right here in any respect?


Matter-antimatter asymmetry

According to the Standard Model of particle physics, the Big Bang ought to have produced matter and antimatter in equal quantities. But in that case, the total contents of the cosmos would have annihilated itself by collisions over time, leaving the universe a really empty place as we speak.

Obviously, that didn’t occur. So what occurred to all the antimatter?

It could be on the market someplace. Theoretically, antimatter ought to have the ability to clump collectively into stars, planets and galaxies similar to common matter (so long as there’s no common matter round to annihilate it). That means there might be corners of the universe the place antimatter dominates.

And it is probably not as far-off as you may assume. Some scientists recommend that antimatter stars might be lurking in our personal galaxy, shining similar to common stars. However, we’d have the ability to determine these “anti-stars” by the uncommon gamma ray bursts they’d give off as specks of matter contact them.

But this is may also unravel the thought. Even if matter and antimatter areas of the universe have been separated by huge stretches of intergalactic space, there would nonetheless be pretty common annihilation occasions happening alongside the boundaries. This would lead to clear gamma ray indicators, which haven’t been noticed, making it unlikely there are antimatter-dominated areas in the observable universe.

Instead, the most important line of reasoning goes that in the early days of the universe, one thing brought on an imbalance in the matter-antimatter ratio, in order that there ended up being a tiny bit extra of 1 than the different. That would imply that each one the matter in the universe as we speak is only a minuscule fraction – as little as one 10-billionth – of what as soon as existed, leftover after a cosmic cataclysm of antimatter annihilation.

So what may have brought on that imbalance? There are a number of hypotheses.

One thought says that we’ve got neutrinos to thank for our existence. These impartial subatomic particles are their very own antiparticles, and it’s thought that they might have transformed some antimatter into matter as the early universe underwent a section transition.

Other subatomic particles like the allure meson have been caught switching between matter and antimatter in the lab. If for some purpose the swap from antimatter into matter is simpler for them than the reverse, they might have created the imbalance early on in the universe’s historical past.

An artist's model of how oscillation of axions (black ball) in the early universe could have created more matter (colored balls) than antimatter 

An artist’s mannequin of how oscillation of axions (black ball) in the early universe may have created extra matter (coloured balls) than antimatter

Harigaya and Co/NASA


Another story factors to a hypothetical particle known as an axion. These are predicted to be extremely gentle, don’t have any electrical cost, and float round the universe in waves not often interacting with different matter. According to at least one examine, the axion discipline started to oscillate in the early universe, making a tiny fraction extra matter than antimatter.

Intriguingly, axions might develop into a really handy particle. Their existence may clear up not simply the matter-antimatter asymmetry downside, however two different cosmic conundrums at the similar time – they’re additionally a darkish matter candidate, and they plug up one other gap in our understanding of particle physics, often called the Strong CP problem, too.

The inherent enigma of antimatter will seemingly proceed to perplex scientists for a very long time to come back. Lab experiments and astronomical observations will little question present new clues that would assist us perceive the evolution of the universe, the limits of the Standard Model of particle physics, and easy methods to harness this unusual substance for makes use of we will’t even think about.

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