Inquiring Minds


Questions About Physics

The Importance of Antimatter Research

I am doing a project in school concerning antimatter and physics. Our group will have to convince another group of students that research in antimatter should be continued, from a physicist's standpoint, and that grants should be given to the physicists to continue this research. It would be very helpful if I could get your input on this situation, so I can quote you during my presentation, since one of our requirements is an expert's opinion. Thank you very much for your help.

Sincerely,

Jonathan from Miami


Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for your email. Your debate on antimatter sounds very interesting. As a physicist I'm happy to share some of my thoughts on the topic.

It is part of human nature to explore things and take things apart. For thousands of years people have wondered "What are the most fundamental building blocks of matter?" The discovery of antimatter (the positron, the antiparticle of the electron) in 1931 pointed the way to a completely new world to be explored. Today we know that antimatter is closely related to the origin of the universe. Studying antimatter, we've learned more about the universe, the Big Bang that started it all, the violent and intriguing processes that led to the earliest structures in the universe, eventually leading to the formation of galaxies, stars, planets and life itself. "Where do we come from?" and "What is the fate of our universe?" are some of the most fundamental questions that we would like to obtain answers for.

More specifically, scientists know very little about why there is almost no antimatter in today's universe. After the Big Bang, there was almost as much antimatter as matter. But matter and antimatter annihilated, leaving only the matter behind that we see today. Why was there a little bit more matter at the beginning of the universe than matter? Could a universe completely made out of antimatter exist as well? Would it function in the same way as a matter universe?

Using powerful accelerators we can recreate tiny amounts of the antimatter that was so abundant in the very early universe. Scientists use the antimatter to study its properties and composition, comparing the results with our knowledge of regular matter. Surprisingly, they have found that some interactions between antiparticles are slightly different than the same interactions between the corresponding particles. Why? They don't yet understand. Is it enough to explain the matter-antimatter discrepancy in the universe? No! There must also be other mechanisms at work - a discovery waiting to happen. Scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center as well as the Japanese KEK laboratory are among the top people carrying out this cutting-edge research.

Are there any applications for antimatter? We don't know yet. We don't yet have the technology to produce antimatter in large quantities (Fermilab produces the largest amount of antimatter of any laboratory of the world, and yet it is only a milligram per year). And storing antimatter is a tricky business as you need to keep it from touching regular matter. (At present, scientists use magnetic fields to trap and store antimatter in vacuum vessels or storage rings.) Some people think that antimatter some day might be used to propel rockets and spacecraft. This may be a dream - but who would have thought one hundred years ago that we would fly to the moon? Some day, antimatter may be an alternative choice of cancer treatment. Today, physicians often use beams of electrons, protons, neutrons or photons (in addition to non-beam methods such as chemotherapy and medication). Could a beam of antimatter be even more efficient in eliminating cancer cells?

Scientists studying antimatter are comparable to the explorers landing on a new continent. We cannot predict what research on antimatter will lead to. The results will greatly enhance our knowledge of the universe. Whether it will also revolutionize the technologies people use remains to be seen.

Without the financial support from the Queen of Spain, Columbus may have never had the resources for his history-making journey across the ocean. Without continued funding, our journey into antimatter land may soon come to a halt. Do we want to stop the boat when we already see the shore? The area of particle physics is at the brink of making some great discoveries. I think our society should continue supporting the quest for solving some of the most fundamental mysteries of nature.

Below, you will find some links to Web sites on antimatter. I hope they will help you to put together a nice, convincing presentation. Good luck! Let me know how it went!

Kurt Riesselmann, Ph.D.
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
Batavia, Illinois

The building blocks of matter:
http://www.fnal.gov/pub/inquiring/matter/madeof/index.html

Antimatter: Mirror of the Universe
http://livefromcern.web.cern.ch/livefromcern/antimatter/index.html

Matter and Antimatter
http://particleadventure.org/particleadventure/frameless/antipreface.html

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last modified 10/28/2002   physicsquestions@fnal.gov