Antimatter: Next Holy Grail for Physics


The status report appears on the screen, showing events from the last 24 hours. Temperature? Signals? Irregularities? Speaking quietly but assertively, Ting asks his questions. The answers are prompt and brief.

There have been no unusual events, and at 5:04 the scientists return to their work. "In Mao's 'Little Red Book,' it says that the most important thing about conferences is that they should be short," says Ting.

In their laboratory in space, the cosmic particle hunters have already caught material from far away more than 17 billion times. They have been able to detect almost all elements in the periodic table, including helium, silicon, carbon, iron and others. But Ting doesn't want to reveal whether there are also indications of anti-helium or even more complex particles of antimatter in the cosmic radiation. "I can only promise one thing," he says. "I will publish as late as possible. I want to be completely sure of myself first."

'Beautiful Physics'

Jeffrey Hangst and the other scientists in the AD building are approaching the antimatter problem in a relatively direct way. Plasma, high energy, laser and nuclear physicists have come together there to practice handling the material from the anti-world. Hidden behind a mountain of concrete blocks is the steel tube through which technicians shoot a bundle of several million anti-protons once every one-and-a-half minutes. The scientists decelerate the particles, steer them with the help of electric and magnetic fields and try to shape anti-atoms out of them.

With its relatively modest budget, measured in mere millions, the AD undertaking at CERN tends to be overshadowed by the major projects. To many of the scientists working at the €3 billion LHC, the fabrication of anti-atoms seems more like a charming game. "A little of this beautiful physics also needs to be allowed," says CERN theoretician John Ellis, with a mixture of arrogance and respect.

Japanese physicist Masaki Hori of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, near Munich, has managed to fashion bizarre artificial objects out of helium and anti-protons. They have enabled him to measure the mass of the anti-proton. Working in the laser laboratory, Hori and his team are now refining a method with which they will be able to measure mass more accurately than was possible with normal matter. "Then we'll be writing textbook knowledge," he says proudly.

Two offices away, Michael Doser is working on another experiment. He wants to measure how the Earth's gravitational field acts on antimatter. He even hopes to be able to measure how the Moon's gravity affects anti-atoms.

Very Pleased

But Jeffrey Hangst garnered the most attention when he was able to bombard a single anti-atom with microwaves. "We've had one breakthrough after another in the last year and a half," he says. "CERN is very pleased with us."

He impatiently hurries his team along. They are developing a new anti-atom trap that will also include a window. This will make it possible to irradiate the captives from the anti-world with lasers. Hangst wants the new device to be up and running before the accelerator is shut down for maintenance in the late fall.

But will any of these efforts truly demonstrate that the energy spectrum of anti-hydrogen is different from that of its twin atom made of matter? Is it even possible for an anti-proton to be lighter than a proton? And is it possible that gravity acts differently on matter and antimatter?

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