Antimatter: Next Holy Grail for Physics


This is Ting's laboratory. He was the one who, in the face of great resistance, saw to it that the ISS was equipped with a particle detector last year. Even when the space shuttle Columbia, which was intended to carry his equipment to the ISS, exploded, he didn't abandon his mission. Ting kept up his lobbying efforts in Washington until an additional shuttle flight was approved for his experiment. Apparently politicians are also fascinated by the goal of searching for antimatter in space.

It was truly a bold proposition, and one that was met with great skepticism among Ting's colleagues: $1.5 billion for an experiment that very few believed stood a chance of succeeding. Some felt that it was a ludicrous project.

Looking in Unusual Places

But Ting was unstoppable. "It's always the same with truly unusual ideas. The theoreticians say: 'This won't achieve anything,' and the experimenters say: 'This won't work,'" he says.

When he came from Taiwan to the United States, says Ting, he had no more than $100 in his pocket, and yet he managed to have a successful career. As a particle physicist, he later searched in places where no one expected surprises -- and it got him a Nobel Prize in the end. Why should he be wrong this time?

"They've been looking for antimatter for decades," Ting scoffs. "And what have they found so far? Nothing."

That's why it's time to ask a completely different question, says Ting: What if antimatter didn't disappear at all? What if it merely exists in other regions of the universe?

In fact, antimatter discoverer Dirac also speculated that perhaps it's only a coincidence that the Earth consists of matter. "It is quite possible that for some of the stars it is the other way about," he said in his Nobel lecture.

This cannot be detected with telescopes alone, Ting explains, which is precisely why he had the 8.5-ton Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) transported into space. If any anti-atoms ever strayed into our corner of the Milky Way, the AMS could track them down. And only a single atom of anti-silicon or anti-carbon would be enough to convince the scientific world that anti-stars and entire anti-galaxies must exist somewhere in the universe.

Keeping It Short and Sweet Ting is not short on self-confidence. The AMS is unique among particle physics experiments in that it is entirely tailored to the wishes of the project's leader. In other projects, it is the collective of scientists that counts. Here, the focus is entirely on Ting.

Every day, just before 5 p.m., the members of his team emerge from the surrounding buildings and briefly assemble in the lobby, where some play with the solar paddles of the ISS model while others watch as the cloud-covered Atlantic slowly passes across a giant monitor. The images are live footage from space, transmitted by a kind of webcam on the space station.

Then, at 5 p.m. on the dot, everyone goes into Ting's office. He sits enthroned at a massive oak desk with room for at least two dozen scientists. The front of the office, which Ting faces, is made of glass, enabling him to look down into the control room, where technicians monitor their extraterrestrial laboratory around the clock, 365 days a year. But now Ting presses a button and a screen comes down from the ceiling, blocking the view of the control room.

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