hysicists working in Europe announced yesterday that
they had passed through nature's looking glass and had created atoms made
of antimatter, or antiatoms, opening up the possibility of experiments in
a realm once reserved for science fiction writers. Such experiments,
theorists say, could test some of the basic tenets of modern physics and
light the way to a deeper understanding of nature.
Matter and antimatter are like the good and evil twins of nature; they
are endowed with equal and opposite characteristics like charge and spin,
so if they meet they obliterate each other, releasing a flash of energy
Weird as it sounds, antimatter is a normal feature of the real,
unfictional universe. Scientists see the creation of antihydrogen atoms as
the first step toward testing some physicists' deepest notions about
nature, which hold that antimatter should look and behave identically to
For example, any violation of the expected symmetry between hydrogen
and antihydrogen would rock physics to its core.
The new research was conducted by physicists at CERN, the particle
physics laboratory outside Geneva.
By corralling clouds of antimatter particles in a cylindrical chamber
laced with detectors and electric and magnetic fields, the physicists
assembled antihydrogen atoms, the looking glass equivalent of hydrogen,
the most simple atom in nature. Whereas hydrogen consists of a positively
charged proton circled by a negatively charged electron, in antihydrogen
the proton's counterpart, a positively charged antiproton, is circled by
an antielectron, otherwise known as a positron.
They then observed the flashes of energy when the new antihydrogen
atoms annihilated themselves in collisions with ordinary matter in the
walls of the chamber.
At least 50,000 antihydrogen atoms have been created since the
experiment began in August, said Dr. Jeffrey S. Hangst, from Aarhus
University in Denmark, who coordinated efforts by 39 physicists from 10
institutions in a collaboration named Athena. A paper on their results has
been accepted for publication in Nature and was posted on its Web site
While antihydrogen atoms have been glimpsed in CERN experiments before,
this is the first time they are being produced under circumstances that
might eventually permit their detailed study, the scientists say.
"It's very exciting to see the production of antihydrogen," said Dr.
Rolf Landua, a CERN physicist and Athena member. "It opens up a whole new
line of experiments with antimatter."
In publishing its paper, Athena appears to have just beaten a
consortium, also based at CERN and known as Atrap, which has also been in
the forefront of antimatter research. In an e-mail message, Atrap's
leader, Dr. Gerald Gabrielse of Harvard, called the production of
antihydrogen an "important and challenging" milestone, adding that his
group had seen similar signals.
Dr. Alan Kostelecky, a theoretical physicist at Indiana University,
called it "a phenomenal technical achievement," and said that Athena and
Atrap were the "the Wright Brothers of antimatter physics." Dr. Kostelecky
compared today's announcement to the first powered flight: "Who knows
where it will lead. Nobody can foresee it."
In science fiction, antimatter, with its perfect convertibility to
energy, is the ultimate rocket fuel, but the CERN scientists see their
antihydrogen atoms as a ticket not across the galaxy but in effect to a
different mathematical universe, in which positive is negative and left is
According to the standard theories of physics, the antimatter universe
should look identical to our own. Antihydrogen and hydrogen atoms should
have the same properties, emitting the exact same frequencies of light,
But some theorists have speculated that the symmetry between matter and
antimatter might be violated in some versions of theories that seek to
unite Einstein's theories on gravity with the weird rules of quantum
mechanics. The most ambitious such "theory of everything," which portrays
particles as strings wriggling in 10-dimensional space-time, seems to
preserve the matter-antimatter symmetry, but theorists do not really
Antimatter has been part of physics since 1927 when its existence was
predicted by the British physicist Paul Dirac. The antielectron, or
positron, was discovered in 1932. According to the theory, matter can only
be created in particle-antiparticle pairs. It is still a mystery,
cosmologists say, why the universe seems to be overwhelmingly composed of
In modern laboratories like CERN or Fermilab in Illinois, physicists
accelerate antiprotons or positrons produced by nuclear reactions to the
speed of light and collide them with conventional particles to produce
tiny starbursts of primordial energy, recreating forms of matter and
energy unseen since the big bang.
The raw material for CERN's antimatter factories is made by shooting
protons, or naked hydrogen nuclei, into a iridium target, but "instead of
speeding them up," Dr. Landua said, "we slow them down."
To do that, CERN built the Antiproton Decelerator, which uses electric
and magnetic fields to slow the particles from near light speed to about
one-tenth of that, he said.
From there the antiprotons go into a "catching trap," where most of
their remaining energy is absorbed and radiated away by electrons swirling
in a magnetic field, lowering them to a temperature of about 15 degrees
above absolute zero and speeds of a few hundred feet per second.
Meanwhile, positrons from the decay of a form of radioactive sodium are
separately slowed and accumulated. The two clouds of oppositely charged
particles are then superimposed by adjusting electrical fields in a
cylindrical "mixing trap" lined with detectors.
Once an antiproton and positron have joined forces, the resulting
antihydrogen atom is electrically neutral and thus no longer caged by the
electrical fields in the trap. "The atom drifts to where it wants to go,"
said Dr. Landua, namely the wall where its components will annihilate with
their opposite numbers in a characteristic pattern: the antiproton into a
spray of lighter particles called pions, and the positron producing a
flash of gamma rays. The Athena team recorded this pattern 131 times and
based on simulations, concluded that it had produced at least 50,000
The Athena experimenters say they still know very little about their
antihydrogen atoms. They say that in the spring, they hope to train a
laser on the antihydrogen to make a preliminary measurement of the atom's
spectrum so that it can be compared to regular hydrogen.
"Any measurement would be interesting because we know essentially
nothing about it," Dr. Hangst said.