Antimatter: Next Holy Grail for Physics

PHOTO: The apparent discovery of the Higgs boson was hailed as a historic milestone, but for particle physicists its the beginning of a new search.
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The apparent discovery of the Higgs boson was hailed as a historic milestone, but for particle physicists it mainly marks the beginning of a new search. Rival teams at CERN in Switzerland are trying to decipher the secrets of antimatter. If they succeed, the laws of physics will have to be rewritten.

Sheep are grazing to the left of the gate to the anti-world. On the right-hand side, a pair of rust-brown steel bottles is waiting to be picked up. A sign warns: "Caution. Radiation!" Another sign prohibits the use of bicycles.

A yellow steel door leads into the interior of the so-called AD building on the grounds of the CERN research center near Geneva, Switzerland. The machine that was built here is called the anti-proton decelerator. The rhythmic hissing and thumping sounds of vacuum pumps and cryo-aggregates combine with the dull droning of the air-conditioning system. This is where scientists are making a material that is highly mysterious because it probably doesn't exist anywhere else in the universe: anti-atoms.

About 4 meters (13 feet) off the ground, a catwalk leads through a bizarre landscape of cables, tubes and concrete. This vantage point offers a glimpse into laboratory rooms in which scientists climb around among magnets, electronic equipment, helium tanks and beamlines. Their goal is to explore the realm of antimatter.

Separated from each other by small gates, four teams are competing to unlock the secrets of nature. Their facility is a factory of sorts for so-called anti-particles. Here, the scientists guide, cool, slow down and centrifuge the artificially generated particles. In the process, they learn which forms of manipulation are possible with this material from a mysterious alternative world. One of them calls it "particle gymnastics."

'The Race Is On'

The words "The race is on" are written on the container where the measurements are done. Jeffrey Hangst, the director of the project, is proud of the fact that his team is ahead in the race. Hangst spent 15 years developing his equipment, and now he is reaping the benefits.

Hangst is the world's first scientist to successfully capture individual anti-hydrogen atoms in magnetic traps. No one else has managed to keep the atoms captive for an entire quarter of an hour. And then, in what was a sensation for physicists, he performed the first successful measurement of one of these antiatoms.

The accelerator ring where Hangst does his experiments was once the centerpiece of CERN, earning the center international fame and its developers, Simon van der Meer and Carlo Rubbia, the Nobel Prize. Today, however, the anti-proton decelerator is hidden in a dead-end street. The antimatter factory isn't easy to find among the office buildings, workshops and machine buildings at CERN.

Public attention has long since turned to the new, enormous super-accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) -- especially in recent days.

Last week, physicists at CERN proudly announced that the LHC had achieved its first important partial victory: The data that were presented at the major summer conference of particle physicists in Melbourne leave almost no doubt anymore that the so-called Higgs boson, which gives other particles their mass, has finally been found. The discovery marks the end of a hunt that has lasted almost 50 years. 'The Work Has Just Begun'

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