Antimatter gets its 16 minutes of fame

Researchers at CERN have revolutionized the ability to isolate and hold onto antimatter, a move which could transform our ability to study the issue.

It was only last year that researchers being able to trap anti-matter and hold onto it for 0.2 seconds was considered a literally epic win. Now the staff of the ALPHA antimatter experiment have repeated the experiment multiple times which much greater success.

The longest period so-far is 16 minutes and 40 seconds: in an amusing quirk, the first three stories on Google’s news index at the time of writing referred to the duration as “more than 15 minutes“, an “amazingly long 16 minutes” and “almost 17 minutes” respectively.

The arithmetically gifted and decimally minded among you may have noticed 16:40 is no random duration: it’s a total of 1,000 seconds, a round number that makes it much easier and quicker to extrapolate results from such studies.

So what’s the aim of such experiments? Well, to put it very simply, matter is anything that has both mass and volume: in effect, what most people think of as physical. Antimatter is thought to make up the rest of the universe and act as a mirror image: for every particle of matter there’s an equivalent antiparticle that has the same mass but an opposing charge. In the CERN research, the emphasis is on “antihydrogen” atoms.

The biggest limitation to that theory is that it suggests the universe should be split equally between matter and antimatter but — at least in the parts we are able to observe — that isn’t the case.

Meanwhile the biggest limitation to research is that when matter and antimatter meet, they destroy one another. That means that rather simply than store antimatter in a physical object, the process has to be carried out within magnetic fields (pictured).

Although the duration has increased 5,000-fold, it’s not entirely down to more effective techniques. At the point when 0.2 second lifespans were the order of the day, simply being able to isolate and measure the antimatter was the main goal: as a result, the researchers were cutting short the technique almost immediately so that they could work with as many anti-atoms as possible. Only since then has the emphasis changed to seeing how long they could be kept.

The researchers now say they have opened up “a range of experimental possibilities, including precision studies of charge–parity–time reversal symmetry and cooling to temperatures where gravitational effects could become apparent.”


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