Antimatter: Next Holy Grail for Physics


But then some providential change must have fundamentally altered the course of the universe. Physicists would love to understand what exactly happened shortly after the Big Bang. At this point, they only know the results of those events early in the history of the cosmos: They led to matter gaining the upper hand over antimatter.

But by no means was it by a large margin. On the contrary, the ratio that once existed between the two types of particles can be calculated using the density of particles in today's universe. The result is astonishing: There were 1,000,000,001 particles to 1,000,000,000 antiparticles. Can such a miniscule imbalance be significant?

Yes, it can. The subsequent evolution of the universe would reveal that this one particle was critical. If matter and antimatter had been exactly equal, cosmic existence would have destroyed itself within fractions of a second, leaving nothing behind but a monotonous desert of radiation.

Tiny Imbalance

No galaxies, no stars and no planets, and not even the most ordinary of atoms would have been created in the universe without this small imbalance -- and humanity would certainly not have had the opportunity to ponder the mysteries of existence. The universe would have been nothing but a massive, constantly expanding ball of light.

Thanks to this tiny imbalance, however, there were survivors of the cosmic conflagration. In a furious inferno, matter and antimatter were incinerated, yielding pure radiation energy, which still exists today in the form of the background radiation that fills the entire universe. But the small remnant, that tiny excess of matter, survived and formed the seed of everything we marvel at today in the starlit sky. And everything that forms mountains, oceans, plants, animals and human beings on the Earth also stems from the remnants of that huge orgy of destruction that marked the beginning of cosmic history.

Ever since physicists recognized that all the diversity and complexity in this world is attributable to the victory of matter over antimatter, one of the great challenges of their field has been to solve the question of what caused that mysterious imbalance in the first place. Although physicists have been able to reconstruct the processes of the Big Bang in astounding detail, this fundamental question still remains unanswered.

Massive Search

But now the big search for answers has begun, a search that involves the use of technology on a massive scale:

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory outside New York City, scientists are smashing together gold ions at nearly the speed of light. Last year, they managed to identify 18 anti-helium nuclei, the largest antiparticles detected to date, in the inferno of many billions of particle fragments. In a bid to detect even larger particles of antimatter, particle physicists have set up experimental apparatus in space. Their detector, which is docked to the International Space Station (ISS), has been listening for signals from the anti-world since May of last year. In Japan, scientists are bombarding a tank filled with 50,000 tons of highly purified water with neutrinos. Their goal is to detect tiny differences in the properties of neutrinos and their antiparticles, anti-neutrinos. One of the four massive underground detectors at the LHC at CERN is devoted primarily to one task: detecting differences in the behavior of matter and antimatter. How 'the Strangest Man' Revolutionized Physics

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