Antimatter: Next Holy Grail for Physics


"It's hard not to get excited by these results," says Sergio Bertolucci, the research director at CERN. He and his colleagues agree that this is a great moment in the history of their field -- perhaps the discovery of the century. And yet it was also a discovery that they had all expected. It would have been more surprising if they had not found the Higgs particle, because it would have destroyed the current standard theory of particle physics.

Seen in this light, the scientists are not as excited about what they have finally achieved as they are about what lies ahead. "The real work has just begun," says CERN Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer.

That's because the discovery of the Higgs boson merely serves as yet another confirmation of an existing theory. Physicists agree that they are now entering terrain in which they will no longer be guided by the existing equations. What happens next is uncertain.

The known formulas are not sufficient to help us understand why the world is this way and not that, and to comprehend in detail how the universe was created during the Big Bang. To delve into those secrets, it will be necessary to decipher new laws of nature.

Whatever Happened to Antimatter?

One of the central puzzles that could pave the way into this new territory lies in the question that Jeffrey Hangst has chosen to pursue: Why does the world consist of matter? And what happened to antimatter?

Hangst is particularly interested in an unusual material. It behaves just like ordinary matter, and yet it's completely different. The properties are the same, meaning that anti-glass would splinter like glass, anti-gold would shine like gold and anti-water would splash like water. And there would also be no visible difference between a person made of normal matter and a person made of antimatter. They would be completely identical.

But heaven forbid that both -- matter and antimatter, image and copy -- come into contact with one another. If that happened, there would be a bright flash of light and suddenly both would have disappeared.

The most important thing, however, is the fact that antimatter doesn't actually exist on a sustained basis. The anti-world is nothing more than a possibility, one that nature has apparently not made into a reality. In the theorists' equations both the world and the anti-world play equal roles. But in the real, observable universe, everything consists of matter, not antimatter.

"Understanding why this is the case has always fascinated me," says Hangst. Physicists are convinced that properly understanding the relationship between matter and antimatter would be tantamount to a revolution in comprehending the universe. Something Instead of Nothing

Back in the mid-19th century, German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling came up with what he called the "final, desperation-filled question": Why is there anything at all? Why is there not nothing? In modern physics, Schelling's metaphysical astonishment has been rephrased: Why don't matter and antimatter exist in equal parts in the universe?

Physicists agree that the force of the Big Bang created both forms of existence in equal amounts. With each particle, its counterpart, the corresponding antiparticle, was born. And because nature gave both the capacity to destroy one another, the moment of their creation already included the seeds of their demise.

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