Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Does Antimatter Matter?

So we've recently learned that scientists at the CERN (a particle physics laboratory in Switzerland that houses the Large Hadron Collider) have been able to trap antimatter and study it for almost 17 minutes.
That sort of blows my mind. As I told Amy, when you hear about certain events, the news just sort of makes you realize how little you understand about a whole lot of other things. I guess that this whole antimatter business sort of fell into that category.
To me, antimatter, to the small extent that I've known anything about it, has always been mostly the stuff of science fiction. I'd heard it described here and there, usually during some sort of cosmological lesson about the Big Bang and the origin of the universe (when antimatter existed in just about the same amounts as matter for brief moments before disappearing), or, more frequently, as part of some sort of imminent disaster scenario on Star Trek. At any rate, antimatter is just one of those concepts that I never quite managed to incorporate into a worldview of "concrete" reality.
The very concept of antimatter- some sort of... something that possesses the opposite properties of normal matter and which destroys regular matter in a burst of energy upon contact- is something that I really have a hard time even getting my head around.
And yet we've been generating antimatter since the 1950's. Since at least 1955 scientists have been creating antimatter in particle accelerators, although until now their ability to study antimatter particles has been limited quite a bit by the fact that previous antimatter particles only existed for fractions of a second before colliding with regular matter and being destroyed.
But now CERN scientists have managed to use superconducting magnets to trap antimatter and keep it around.
I don't mean to keep harping on this, but that's weird. The idea of antimatter itself is strange enough, but the accompanying idea that our scientists are now advanced enough to capture it for a measurable period of time, manipulate it, and study it- well, that's just the icing on the cake. Somewhere in Switzerland, for over a quarter of an hour, a bunch of physicists managed to keep something that I do not understand hung up in a magnetic field- swirling particles of antimatter that possess the mirror opposite characteristics of matter and which more or less violently come to an end when they come into contact with anything that we might think of as a normal substance.
Anyway, I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make other than to say that sometimes something just slips into the newspaper headlines that really makes me take a step back and look at the world in a different way (at least for a little while). This antimatter thing was just one of those stories. It reminds me that I can't possibly hope to fully and accurately imagine the world as it will exist in the future because I really don't have anything close to a full understanding of what we know about the universe around us in the present.

The universe is expanding.
Gravity is caused by the bending of spacetime.
The faster you go, the slower time moves.
And now scientists are studying some sort of thing that has characteristics which are the mirror opposite of normal matter.

The universe isn't really what it seems. And I don't really understand what it actually is.

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