Antimatter: Next Holy Grail for Physics


Then the scientists study the resulting mist of particle fragments. Their goal is to find new physics, or phenomena that cannot be explained with the known body of formulas in particle physics. They know that the answers to the great puzzles of particle physics must be hidden somewhere out there, in forms of energy never explored before -- as well as the secret that makes antimatter comprehensible in the first place.

CERN's ground-breaking apparatus went into operation two-and-a-half years ago. For two years -- to widespread disappointment -- it seemed as if nature were adhering strictly to the known formulas.

Then, at the end of last year, the first indication of a new physics appeared to finally have been revealed. The news, at the time, did not come from the Higgs boson hunters at the two giant detectors, Atlas and CMS, who were being celebrated last week. Instead, a smaller team at the LHCb experiment announced the discovery. (The world of CERN is so unusual that a team of 750 scientists from 15 countries can be considered small.)

"It's the first truly exciting result the accelerator has delivered," says LHCb physicist Thomas Ruf, his voice filled with pride. He flips through the "Particle Data Booklet," a small brochure that lists all the kaons, muons, omega, lambda and sigma particles in the particle world -- a standard feature on the desk of every particle physicist.

Stronger than Expected

The booklet lists dozens of possible decay processes for which asymmetries between matter and antimatter have since been discovered. But it's different this time, because the effect is five or even 10 times as stronger as it ought to be. Most importantly, it is occurring in so-called D mesons, particles that contain only one charm quark. Few scientists had even considered this possibility until now.

And now the theoreticians are eagerly embarking on the study of the behavior of charm quarks, which had previously always been neglected. The LHCb physicists are trying to recalibrate their device to make it as sensitive as possible to the decay of D mesons.

Ruf and his colleagues hope to find other surprises in the data from the LHCb collaboration. And then there are the remaining results from last year, which haven't been fully analyzed yet, and that more than a dozen scientists are currently studying. Will the data confirm the D meson effect? They don't know yet, because all of the data they receive is distorted -- deliberately.

To prevent the scientists from being blinded by their own euphoria while analyzing the data, the results are essentially obfuscated with the help of special software. Only when the analysis is complete and has been determined to be sound will the data be "unblinded," to use the scientists' terminology." Then it will become apparent whether there is evidence to substantiate the scientists' ideas.

Searching for Antimatter in Space Another scientist who has set up camp at CERN is also hoping for answers: Nobel laureate Samuel Ting. But it isn't in the accelerator tunnel deep beneath the earth, but 400 kilometers above it, that Ting believes he can find the answer to the antimatter mystery.

From a distance, an eye-catching sign draws attention to the building where he works. It depicts radiation raining down on planet Earth as if it were faraway stardust.

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