BBC Earth (Asia) - - Update -

If sci­ence fic­tion were to be be­lieved, an­ti­mat­ter would be ev­ery­where: from the USS En­ter­prise’s power source to the gi­ant bomb in Dan Brown’s An­gels & Demons. In real life, how­ever, it’s much more elu­sive. But that may be about to change. AL­PHA, an in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion of CERN-based re­searchers, has ob­served the light spec­trum of an­ti­mat­ter for the first time.

An­ti­mat­ter is iden­ti­cal to mat­ter par­ti­cles, such as elec­trons and pro­tons, but has the op­po­site charge. It is tricky to han­dle as it an­ni­hi­lates the mo­ment it en­coun­ters or­di­nary mat­ter, leav­ing only pure en­ergy be­hind.

AL­PHA has been work­ing on com­bin­ing positrons with an­tipro­tons to pro­duce atoms of an­ti­hy­dro­gen, which are slip­pery cus­tomers. But by us­ing a clever trap to cap­ture the an­ti­hy­dro­gen par­ti­cles, they can be stud­ied. “We have de­signed a very spe­cial mag­netic trap that re­lies on the fact that an­ti­hy­dro­gen is a lit­tle bit mag­netic,” said Jef­frey Hangst, the col­lab­o­ra­tion’s spokesper­son.

Atoms are iden­ti­fied by the wave­lengths of light they ab­sorb or give off when elec­trons make a jump be­tween dif­fer­ent en­ergy lev­els within them. The AL­PHA col­lab­o­ra­tion found that, within the lim­its of the ex­per­i­ment, the spec­trum for the sim­plest elec­tron jump in an­ti­hy­dro­gen was iden­ti­cal to or­di­nary hy­dro­gen. This is an im­por­tant dis­cov­ery, be­cause if there were mea­sur­able dif­fer­ences be­tween an­ti­hy­dro­gen and hy­dro­gen, then the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of par­ti­cle physics would be bro­ken.

There is plenty more to dis­cover – for ex­am­ple does an­ti­mat­ter fall or up or down un­der grav­ity? – as the CERN team con­tin­ues to ex­plore this re­mark­able sub­stance.

The AL­PHA ex­per­i­ment at CERN

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