A Tantalizing Glimpse of Antimatter
The symmetries of nature suggest that matter and antimatter will have similar properties. But scientists have long puzzled over why the world is not also made of antimatter, which only occurs naturally in cosmic ray collisions. They believe the Big Bang should have created the same amount of matter and antimatter and, in theory, the two should have wiped each other out as matter and antimatter annihilate one another on impact and disappear. So what's going on?
The successful production of antimatter last fall by two teams of scientists working at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva made headlines around the world. The teams, ATHENA and ATRAP, appeared to have entered a realm once reserved for science fiction. But a reality check by the ATRAP (Antihydrogen Trap) team not only confirmed that antihydrogen could be produced, but trapped the antiatoms long enough to catch a glimpse of their structure. It was the start of experiments that may unlock more of the mysteries of the birth of universe, with Dr. Eric Hessels on the ATRAP team spearheading Canada's contribution.
As Canada Research Chair in Atomic Physics, Dr. Hessels, along with his team at York University, is working with ATRAP at Harvard University on a method to trap the antiatoms long enough to conduct experiments. His work also involves measuring the energies and orbits of helium atoms to provide the most accurate measurement of the "fine structure constant," the fundamental constant of nature that determines the strength of the electric and magnetic forces between charged objects. This fundamental constant is not only relevant to magnets and electricity, but to how atoms, chemicals, and solid objects are held together.