Antimatter: Fact and Fiction

By Samriddhi Mishra

When we hear the word ‘Antimatter,’ the book Angels and Demons by Dan Brown is sure to make an appearance in our minds. In the book, a secret community decides to eliminate the Vatican using stolen antimatter from a lab. Now, what if I told you that antimatter exists outside of the world of science fiction, and it has actually been created in detectable amounts at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN)? Can this antimatter be the cause of earth’s demise? Well, don’t start packing up your bags and go looking for a commercial spacecraft just yet.


Antimatter: What exactly is it?

It all commenced in 1928, facilitated by the revolutionary physicist Paul Dirac. By combining certain aspects of Albert Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Field Theory, Dirac found out that the equations had both negative and positive solutions. This led him to postulate the existence of a particle with the same mass of electron but opposite charge. This discovery triggered the formulation of many other conjectures regarding antiparticles that have the same properties as their counterparts but opposite charge. Before anyone knew it, the world was bombarded with research papers about antimatter constituted by antiparticles instead of the subatomic particles that everyone knew about. In layman’s terms, antimatter may be considered to be the opposite of matter.





They say that opposites attract, but in this particular case, they explode. Matter and Antimatter have a very chaotic relationship. The minute they touch, what follows is an event that produces a huge amount of energy. This is known as annihilation. In this process, both the matter and the antimatter are eliminated. This is one fact due to which people fear antimatter, but we will get to that in a bit. Now, what are the roots of this strange substance? Scientists speculate that antimatter was formed at the same time as normal matter, during the Big Bang. Some theories in contemporary physics also suggest that the former was formed in the same quantity as the latter. However, this is practically impossible as if they were formed in the same quantities, matter and antimatter would’ve been eliminated by each other. Hence, by this assumption, the universe shouldn’t exist! This problem, known as the Matter-Antimatter Asymmetry has been puzzling researchers for years and many research papers have been published regarding the same. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a concrete reason for it yet. CERN has established and planned many potential experiments to dive deeper into this problem and to find a solution.


Let’s move on to the importance of antimatter. The most fundamental use of antimatter is the expansion of our knowledge. Over the years, scientists have been studying the nature of antimatter and they have concluded that its behaviour is not completely like ordinary matter. Apart from magnetic interactions and charges, observations prove that the interactions of antimatter with certain substances differ from those of their counterpart, which goes against our established understanding. This proves that further study of antiparticles has the potential to increase and expand the field of particle physics greatly. Secondly, as mentioned before, antimatter on interaction with matter produces a lot of energy. This is the reason that NASA is looking for opportunities to use this annihilation as a fuel to propel space crafts. The only constraints in sight are the limited amount of antimatter and the monetary expenditure, which might be eliminated with advancements in technology.


Fear: Rational or Irrational?

Now we come to the final question- is antimatter highly toxic? Can it wipe out an entire city? The short answer would be no. Firstly, we only have the energy to create antimatter in extremely microscopic quantities. This means that any large-scale annihilation is next to impossible. Secondly, the creation process is highly inefficient. According to livescience, “just one billionth of the initial energy gets transformed into an antimatter particle” which means that we are faced with a significant energy loss. Furthermore, the process requires a lot of funding. In brief, the concept of creating an antimatter bomb right now is not feasible. As CERN physicist Rolf Landua remarked, “Why construct a 20 kilo-ton antihydrogen bomb when thousand times more powerful hydrogen bombs do already exist in the stockpiles of the superpowers?” This means that we will not be seeing the military usage of antimatter anytime soon.

In conclusion, Antimatter is much like regular matter but just a bit more strange. However, we need to keep in mind that strange does not mean toxic, it means unexplored. Any further knowledge of antimatter will just result in an improvement in science, which in turn facilitates new technologies and theories. This leads to betterments in our lifestyles.

To sum up, given below is a quote from Lawrence M. Krauss that perfectly captures the essence of this article:

“I like to say that while antimatter may seem strange, it is strange in the sense that Belgians are strange. They are not really strange; it is just that one rarely meets them.”


Sources:

  1. https://www.livescience.com/33348-antimatter-destroy-world.html

  2. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-is-there-more-matter-than-antimatter/

  3. https://www.livescience.com/32387-what-is-antimatter.html

Image credit: https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/where-is-all-the-antimatter-scientists-create-antihydrogen-atom-to-find-answers-html-1206368-2018-04-06