In a technological tour de force, scientists have developed a new way to probe antimatter.
For the first time, researchers were able to zap antimatter atoms with a laser, then precisely measure the light let off by these strange anti-atoms. By comparing the light from anti-atoms with the light from regular atoms, they hope to answer one of the big mysteries of our universe: Why, in the early universe, did antimatter lose out to regular old matter?
"This represents a historic point in the decades-long efforts to create antimatter and compare its properties to those of matter," says Alan Kostelecky, a theoretical physicist at Indiana University.
Antimatter sounds like something out of science fiction. "The first time I heard about antimatter was on Star Trek, when I was a kid," says Jeffrey Hangst, a physicist at Aarhus University in Denmark. "I was intrigued by what it was and then kind of shocked to learn that it was a real thing in physics."
He founded a research group called ALPHA at CERN, Europe's premier particle physics laboratory near Geneva, that is devoted to studying antimatter. That's a tricky thing to do because antimatter isn't like the regular matter you see around you every day. At the subatomic level, antimatter is pretty much the complete opposite — instead of having a negative charge, for example, its electrons have a positive charge. And whenever antimatter comes into contact with regular matter, they both disappear in a flash of light.
"What you hear about in science fiction — that antimatter gets annihilated by normal matter — is 100 percent true," Hangst says, "and is the greatest challenge in my everyday life."