The more we seem to learn (or think we learn) about the universe, the stranger and more mysterious it seems. Recent developments in physics and quantum field theory is showing that the nature of reality probably isn’t what it appears to be to our weak, limited human sensory perception. While our senses allow us to perceive only a very narrow band of matter and energy, physicists have known for some time now that other types of matter such as dark matter or antimatter exist which are impossible for us or our current technology to perceive.
Until now, that is. For the first time, researchers at CERN (where else?) believe they have successfully observed an interaction between light and antimatter atoms. Their results have been published in Nature, and according to the authors, mark a turning point in the search for antimatter by bringing highly theoretical physics into the realm of empirical experiments. The reason antimatter has remained so elusive is the fact that matter and antimatter cancel each other out; they are literally the complete opposite negation of one another. Thus, the fact that our world is filled with matter means it is naturally likewise devoid of antimatter.
While it sounds like a weapon on Star Trek, CERN’s massive antiproton decelerator is able to create collisions between positrons and anti positrons, which subsequently create some of the world’s first stable atoms of antihydrogen. By bouncing a laser off of these atoms of antihydrogen (essentially mirror images of hydrogen atoms, electromagnetically speaking), the researchers found that the eye-crossingly-technical laws of matter known as charge, parity, and time reversal symmetry (CPT) held constant, meaning they were able to conclude they were actually observing antimatter for the first time:
We have performed the first laser-spectroscopic measurement on an atom of antimatter. This has long been a sought-after achievement in low-energy antimatter physics. It marks a turning point from proof-of-principle experiments to serious metrology and precision CPT comparisons using the optical spectrum of an anti-atom.
Jeffrey Hangst, a physicist at Aarhus University in Denmark and one of the dozens of authors of this new research, told NPR that this research is the culmination of a lifetime worth of curiosity sparked by the imagination of classic science fiction:
The first time I heard about antimatter was on Star Trek, when I was a kid. I was intrigued by what it was and then kind of shocked to learn that it was a real thing in physics. What you hear about in science fiction — that antimatter gets annihilated by normal matter — is 100 percent true and is the greatest challenge in my everyday life.
Man, that sure beats the greatest challenge in my everyday life: finding the will to put on actual pants. I mean come on, lay off me – I work from my couch. Oh alright, fine. But no belt.