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CERN Physicists Successfully Use Lasers to Manipulate Antimatter

I had a drink with a man who worked at CERN once. He was a cool guy. I asked him point-blank if they were using the Large Hadron Collider to open a portal to Saturn so all the demons that live there could come live here, too. He said yes, but I suspect he was joking. We laughed and talked about real science for a while. I’m still pretty wary of CERN, though. See, there’s at least one thing in this world more terrifying than demons from Saturn: nerds with functionally limitless funding. There’s no telling what sort of shenanigans they’ll get up to. According to a paper published recently in Nature, the latest mad science experiment going down at the LHC had physicists manipulating 966 atoms of antimatter with lasers. Honestly, it sounds like a lot of fun.

If you have even a passing familiarity with sci-fi, you’ve probably heard the word antimatter at least once, but what exactly is it? Basically, antimatter is matter with some of its physical properties reversed, either it’s electrical charge or its quantum number. A normal electron has a negative charge and an anti-electron, or positron, has a positive charge. It’s a bizarro-world version of matter. Physicists speculate that antimatter should be able to form chemical bonds the same way that normal matter does, creating anti-molecules like anti-water or anti-salt. Maybe there’s even some anti-humans out there.

Atomic Structure

This is a regular atom. Electrons are negatively charged and protons are positively charged. With antimatter, those charges are reversed.

It’s notoriously difficult for scientists to study antimatter, however, because there’s just not a lot of it. That’s weird and slightly disconcerting because, according to our models of how the universe formed, there should be an equal amount of matter and antimatter. There’s essentially none in the observable universe. When antimatter is created, in big flashy events like supernovas, it’s immediately destroyed when it comes into contact with normal matter. The normal matter is annihilated as well. That’s the thing with antimatter, when matter and antimatter collide, they explode with incredible force and efficiency. One gram of antimatter colliding with one gram of matter would produce an explosion equivalent to 43 thousand tons of TNT. Yes, you read that right, and that’s why I’m scared of nerds.

So if antimatter and matter just immediately destroy each other, and there should have been equal amounts created at the big bang, how does anything still exist? That’s the question that CERN is trying to answer, and the latest experiments are an unprecedented step in that direction.

The Large Hadron Collider is capable of producing the big flashy events that make antimatter. Physicists made a bunch of the stuff (not enough to end worlds) and suspended it in a vacuum. Using solid-state lasers that oscillate at speeds measured in nano-seconds, they were able to induce what’s called the Lyman transition in 966 atoms of antihydrogen. The Lyman transition is one of the fundamental actions of particle physics and refers to the spectrum of ultraviolet light emitted when a hydrogen atom changes energy states. The important takeaway is this: they did stuff to antimatter that they can do to regular matter.

The next step for the team at CERN is to make some more antihydrogen and then cool it down to the point where they can subject it to mass spectroscopy and gravity measurement. One of the main goals for these experiments is to eventually test the theory of CPT symmetry, which states that an antimatter, or “mirror image” version of the universe would operate identically to ours. They hope to also figure out why matter exists in nature and why antimatter only very rarely does. Assuredly, though, someone’s going to decide that they should probably just make a really big bomb.

Antimatter explosion.

“Whoops.”