Friday, 10 June 2011
Scientists at Switzerland's CERN laboratories have made history by containing antimatter particles for over 16 minutes.
Though it lacks the cataclysmic gravitas of spawning a world-ending black hole, this new record is a huge leap beyond the researchers' previous best, in which the group captured..
antimatter particles for a mere fraction of a second.
Nabbing new high scores is a joy, but the real benefit here is in how the sustained antimatter will allow for previously unimaginable research. Specifically, CERN scientists hope the collection of antiatoms will offer a glimpse into a still-theoretical phenomena known as CPT symmetry.
Roughly speaking, CPT is the idea that "a particle moving forward through time in our universe should be indistinguishable from an antiparticle moving backwards through time in a mirror universe." According to our best guesses, CPT is a constant throughout our reality, but since we've never had a chance to observe antimatter in detail, the concept is more theory than proven fact.
"Any hint of CPT symmetry breaking would require a serious rethink of our understanding of nature," wrote CERN spokesman Jeffrey Hangst in the experiment's official press release.
Additionally, researchers are hopeful that the trapped antimatter will offer a glimpse at the structure of antielements.
"If you hit the trapped antihydrogen atoms with just the right microwave frequency, they will escape from the trap, and we can detect the annihilation -- even for just a single atom," Hangst adds. "This would provide the first ever look inside the structure of antihydrogen -- element number 1 on the anti-periodic table."
Forgetting for a moment that "anti-periodic table" sounds like a minor plotline from a Grant Morrison Justice League International comic, this breakthrough has potentially reality-changing consequences -- especially given mankind's proclivity for applying new technology toward ever-better weapons of destruction.
My only hope is that the idea of an antimatter bomb proves too existentially horrifying for anyone to ever actually build such a thing.
Then again, I imagine Niels Bohr felt the same way before Harry Truman opted to turn Nagasaki into radioactive glass.
Source: CERN, via The Telegraph