Scientists Make Breakthrough in Antimatter Research

CERN researchers make a major step in understanding antimatter by trapping antihydrogen atoms and controlling them with lasers.

Scientists Make Breakthrough in Antimatter Research

Antimatter is a concept that oozes sci-fi, evocative of amazing engines, time travel and most likely destruction of the whole universe. Or maybe it’s a parallel-worlds-are-everywhere-around-us type of thing. In any case, this idea comes to us from the law of physics that predicts that there should be an antimatter particle for every particle of regular matter. But if the two shall ever meet, there’d be a release of energy, annihilating both.


This goes to the heart of the mystery of how our universe was created. If equal amounts of matter and antimatter were produced by the Big Bang, how did everything not just explode or just vanish? Why are we even here? 

To study this, scientists have been trying to understand antimatter, looking for decades to compare its properties to matter. And a new report from CERN in Switzerland confirms that for the first time ever researchers were able to control an antimatter particle of the hydrogen atom, manipulating it long enough with lasers to allow for measurement and comparison with the regular matter hydrogen atom. 

In particular, scientists from the ALPHA experiment at the CERN laboratory were able to hit the antihydrogen atoms with a laser to observe the light they gave off as positrons in the atoms returned to lower energy levels.

“Using a laser to observe a transition in antihydrogen and comparing it to hydrogen to see if they obey the same laws of physics has always been a key goal of antimatter research,” said Professor Jeffrey Hangst, spokesperson of the ALPHA collaboration.

Professor Jeffery Hangst. Credit: CERN

This result is the culmination of 20 years of work for CERN’s antimatter team. Unable to find antihydrogen atoms in nature, scientists worked on creating them in the lab. The challenge has been to trap enough of them for long enough to be able to study them. Previous efforts averaged 1.2 antihydrogen atoms trapped every 15 minutes. The new method created about 25,000 antihydrogen atoms every 15 minutes  and trapped about 14 of them. 

If you think your job is hard, try working with antimatter. 

"What you hear about in science fiction — that antimatter gets annihilated by normal matter — is 100 percent true," Hangst told NPR, "and is the greatest challenge in my everyday life."

In other words, his test subjects would constantly disappear.

Images show anti-hydrogen atoms annihilating as they come into contact with the ordinary matter walls of the ALPHA experiment. Credit: CERN

Interestingly, the researchers concluded that under the same test conditions, the antihydrogen atoms gave off the exact same light spectrum as regular hydrogen atoms.

"It’s long been thought that antimatter is an exact reflection of matter, and we are gathering evidence to show that is indeed true," Tim Tharp from ALPHA said to Gizmodo.

To go back to the question of why the universe didn’t just collapse in on itself, with matter and antimatter cancelling each other out -

"Something happened, some small asymmetry that led some of the matter to survive, and we simply have no good idea that explains that right now," explained Jeffrey Hangst to NPR.

Further study of antimatter might yield the answer, especially as the work by Hangst and the team at ALPHA points the way towards a whole new field of antihydrogen spectroscopy.


CERN's Alpha lab (Image: Maximilien Brice/CERN)

But what about making antimatter in a lab environment - could that blow us up eventually?

“The amount of antimatter involved in this experiment and created by the history of mankind is such a small amount that it poses no threat to anyone,” Tim Tharp reassured Gizmodo.

We’ll have to take his word for it. In the meantime, let's dream about this antimatter rocket - 

An antimatter propulsion system. 199. Credit: NASA.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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